Ursula Oppens learned from her mom to value 20th century music

December 16, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Ursula Oppens learned early in life that while mother may not always be right -- and, in fact, often is wrong -- that it's always fruitful to argue with her.

Oppens, who will play a recital tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the Baltimore Chamber Music Society series, is the best-known pianistic champion of new music in America. And her mother, Edith, is one of the country's best-known teachers (at the Mannes School of Music in New York).

But the kind of pianistic career that the 47-year-old Oppens chose for herself is not one which her mother initially approved of. While she plays Beethoven and Schumann -- indeed, she will do so tonight -- Oppens is also dedicated to the works of such difficult composers as Elliot Carter (he's on the program, too), playing them with the lucidity and conviction that other pianists bring to Beethoven.

"But it's not the sort of career that my mother envisaged for me -- especially after I won the Busoni Competition [in Italy] in 1969," Oppens says. "She would say, 'So and so is a terrible composer.' But usually she'd end up liking whatever I was playing. It was a good test, because an audience needs to be convinced. Real life -- if you're a performer -- is convincing people to like what they don't expect to like."

But Oppens credits her mother for pre-disposing her to appreciate 20th century music. Both of her parents were refugees from the Nazis, but as a teen-ager her mother was a junior member of the Viennese musical circle that included Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

"To me growing up, all of those composers were just as familiar as Mozart or Beethoven," Oppens says. "But when I thought of the great 20th century composers -- just as I did those of earlier centuries -- I thought that they were dead. It was only when I got to college in the early 1960s that I realized that great stuff was still being written."

In her freshman year at Harvard, Pierre Boulez lectured and there was a performance of his "Marteau Sans Maitre" that, Oppens says, "blew my mind." By the time she finished her graduate work at the Juilliard School, she was a fixture of New York's new music scene. She was a founding member of Speculum Musicae -- the city's premiere performing group for new music -- and a chosen advocate of such composers as Carter, Charles Wuorinen and Frederic Rzewski.

There's nothing of which she's prouder than of helping to persuade Carter to write his first work for solo piano in more than 30 years, "Night Fantasies." She was one of four well-known pianists -- the others were Charles Rosen, Gilbert Kalish and the late Paul Jacobs -- who had repeatedly asked Carter to write something for them.

"One day the four of us happened to be together and the subject of Carter came up and someone said, 'Do you suppose that he doesn't want to hurt our feelings by saying yes to one of us when he's already said no to the rest of us?' " Oppens says. "I said, 'Why don't the four of us get together and make him an offer he can't refuse?' "

Ursula Oppens performs tonight at 8 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets are $13, call (410) 486-1140.

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