Pianist to join quartet for Candlelight show Concert reunites five old friends

March 12, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Pianist Ursula Oppens is a woman wrapped up in her work: so much so that she didn't hear the phone ringing through her practice, though she had placed it right beside the piano.

One of the finest American pianists of her generation, Oppens, 53, was preparing for a performance of a ferociously difficult Elliott Carter sonata, which she will give in New York today before coming to Columbia this weekend for an equally daunting program with the Mendelssohn String Quartet.

"What you want to do in all music is find the emotional meaning behind the notes," she said.

"In a piece you've never heard before, you have to work really hard to find it. But it's just as true of a piece one thinks one knows -- the same exploration has to take place."

None of the works on the Candlelight Concerts program Saturday is from the contemporary repertory in which Oppens specializes.

But, as it happens, the Mendelssohn piano quartet that will open the concert was unfamiliar to all the players. So it had to be approached as a piece of new music.

The next work, a piano quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich, also will not be whistleable by listeners to a Top 40 classical radio station like WBJC-FM in Baltimore.

Only the finale, Brahms' spacious and stormy piano quartet, should be common ground for audience and performers.

Mendelssohn's work is his Op. 2, written when the composer was all of 12.

Shostakovich's work, Op. 57, was written in 1940, just after the composer had come back into official Soviet favor with the Symphony No. 5.

He had spent much of the 1930s in disrepute for "Western formalist tendencies" after Stalin condemned his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk."

"Shostakovich himself played it and recorded it," said Oppens."I have the feeling it was meant to be played" -- as opposed to his "drawer" pieces, the works that would not have pleased the government, which he set aside and did not publish until after Stalin died.

"Several movements have very strong references to Bach, at least I think so," Oppens said. "The third is a very Shostakovich scherzo, with that edge -- it has tinges of both the bumpkin and the macabre. And the last movement is a pastorale that reminds me of Beethoven."

The Mendelssohn Quartet, which is ensemble in residence at the University of Delaware and the Eastern Shore Chamber Music Festival, includes violinists Nick Eanet and Nicholas Mann, violist Maria Lambros and cellist Marcy Rosen. They and Oppens are old friends.

"I've played with them since the quartet was formed," Oppens said.

She and Mann go back even further. They've known each other since they were children, when their parents -- violinist Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Edith Oppens -- taught at the Aspen Music Festival.

Ursula Oppens and the Mendelssohn String Quartet will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith Theater, Howard Community College, Columbia. Tickets are $25, $18 for seniors, $9 for students. Information: 410-715-0034.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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