A Pleasing Beethoven/Contemporary Mix


Beethoven’s intensely characterful music does not go with everything, but Ursula Oppens has made cogent and affecting Beethoven/contemporary mixes something of a recital signature. Monday evening at USC, the veteran pianist interspersed pieces from the “Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book” among three Beethoven sonatas, imparting insight and refreshment to an attentive audience in Newman Recital Hall.

Temporal dynamism was a strong connection. All of these pieces worked overtly with tempo and rhythm, parsing time through pulse and accent. The title of Chen Yi’s “Ba Ban,” for example, means “eight beats,” and octagonal patterns are expressed at every structural level of this vivid interpretation of a traditional Chinese tune, which ends with just the rhythm of the song fluttering in the upper register.

Metrical gamesmanship is a distinctive pillar of Elliott Carter’s style. His Two Diversions from the “Millennium Piano Book,” a collection of new pieces instigated by Oppens, open with dialectic interaction around an inconstant ostinato. The two contrasting spirits then develop simultaneously at opposite speeds, the one slowing as the other hastens.

Frederic Rzewski’s “The Days Fly By” is one piece from a rapidly growing suite that Oppens said now takes seven hours to play whole. Flamboyantly repercussive, it requires the pianist to rap aggressively on the body of the instrument as a narrow band of iterated pitches expands to engulf the whole keyboard, then contracts to its pitchless rhythmic essence.


Beethoven’s rhythmic obsessions and abrupt metrical deflections were notorious among his contemporaries. Taken collectively, his sonatas No. 8 (“Pathetique”), No. 13 (the rarely heard “Sonata quasi una fantasia” partner to the “Moonlight”) and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”) form a sort of mega sonata reflecting on temporal issues through head, heart and dancing feet.

Oppens played it all with her usual acuity and pertinent passion. There were a few notes she would probably like to have back and momentary lapses of concentration in Two Diversions and “Les Adieux,” fleeting distractions from her direct engagement of audience and music. Her encore was a striking--literally--minimalist Toccata from the “Millennium Piano Book” by Louis Andriessen.

On Thursday, she joins pianist Vicki Ray and the Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble in a program including Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

* Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble with Ursula Oppens, Thursday, 7 p.m., Alfred Newman Recital Hall, USC, [213] 749-7111). $4-$7.