Ben Gambuzza | 7 FEB 2024
One of the best feelings in the world is when you can trust the soloist.
You know it from the first note they play. You sink into your chair, forget about the audience around you, and take a deep breath out, knowing you are in good hands.
That is what I experienced Saturday afternoon at Merkin Hall in Manhattan, where Ursula Oppens, her partner, Jerome Lowenthal, and six other pianists played a group recital of pieces written for Oppens over the years, in celebration of her eightieth birthday, which was on February 2. At least two of the composers—John Corigliano and Joan Tower—were in attendance.
When I interviewed Oppens for my show, The Best Is Noise, in January (listen to it below), I asked her what she wanted to say with this concert. “‘Hey friends, why don’t you learn to play these pieces?’” was her reply. “I’ve chosen it really as pieces for other pianists to play… I encouraged [the compositions] to come into the world, and now they’re here, and they’re fun.” But the music on Saturday’s program was no cakewalk, even if some of the pianists, including Oppens herself, made it appear so.
After crossing the stage with a bright smile and thanking the audience from the piano, Oppens, still grinning, began with Old and Lost Rivers, a homey, diatonic (except for one chromatic moment), keyboard-spanning work, originally for orchestra, by Tobias Picker, who wrote this piano version for Oppens in 1986. Oppens seemed to let the music flow out of her as the wide, resonant intervals filled the stage. Her phrasing of the sometimes extremely disparate voices, coupled with her restraint, projection, and sensitivity to the nuances of the piece’s changing moods, are what made me trust her. She seemed to be creating the composition as she went, like lucid dreaming.
Other pianists were harder to trust. Carl Patrick Bolleia, a former student of Oppens, followed her with a muscular rendering of Charles Wuorinen’s The Blue Bamboula, which Oppens commissioned in 1980. Inspired by the Virgin Islands dance and drum tradition of the same name, the piece demands rhythmic fancy and spirit. Bolleia realized that spirit with humor, like when he made knowing audience members chuckle by allowing ample space for an allusion to the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. But he banged, making the work sound like something to be conquered rather than communicated.
Han Chen’s bubbly and seemingly effortless performance of Conlon Nancarrow’s Two Canons for Ursula, both of which require the pianist to play in two tempos simultaneously, reveled in the halting and mock-improvisatory flow of the composer’s polyrhythms. Chen’s ability to keep each line independent and outspoken was remarkable, and his joy at doing so was infectious.
Less impressive were the two pianists who followed. Matthew Griswold, self-taught through high school, gave an enthusiastic but directionless interpretation of Corigliano’s three-movement Winging It, based on improvisations the composer concocted at the piano. And Steven Beck restricted his dynamic palette in Elliott Carter’s Two Diversions, resulting in a bland stasis that didn’t reach the depths of Modernist mystique and whimsy that the composition invites.
But Ice Wang blew me away. Still studying with Oppens for her master’s in piano performance at Mannes School of Music, she launched into the perpetuum mobile of Joan Tower’s Or Like a…an Engine with the nimbleness of Argerich and an intensity to match Richter’s in his most terrifying renditions of Prokofiev and Chopin.
In fact, according to a program note, Tower thinks of the piece, which the composer dedicated to Oppens after WYNC-FM commissioned it in 1994, as “like a virtuosic Chopin etude.” But it is more like a Rachmaninoff etude-tableau, so vigorous is its propulsion, hidden lines, and frantic swells, not to mention its ending, which is what used to be called a “masculine cadence”—the final chord occurring on a strong beat. One could feel the spirit of Oppens moving through Wang; I hope she stays in the city after graduation.
After Natasha Gwirceman kept the machine going with an attention-grabbing presentation of Tania León’s Mística, Oppens joined Juilliard professor and master of late Romantic repertoire Jerome Lowenthal for a lovely and loving performance of Michael Stephen Brown’s 12 Blocks, a four-hands piece written for the couple and inspired by the distance that separates their Manhattan apartments.
Oppens and Lowenthal met decades ago while serving on piano competition juries, she told me in our conversation. They often agreed on musical matters, but Lowenthal was married to another pianist, Ronit Amir, and Oppens was dating the great jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Amir died in 1990, Hemphill in 1995, and their grief created a special bond. Over the years, they have blended musical sensibilities. Oppens went so far as to say that Lowenthal is “more expressive than I am.” “I used to be more Apollonian,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ve become more expressive.”
Lowenthal’s Dionysian passion was on full display as he recited Verlaine and Keats between moments of arm-crossing with Oppens. The two handled Brown’s thorny acrobatics with elegance and poise. As a fleeting reference to Debussy’s Clair de la lune melted into the placid fabric of precious harmonies, the couple returned to the state of lucid dreaming with which Oppens began the program.
The musicians lined up to receive applause. Oppens passed down a bouquet of flowers to each of them—a poignant reminder that her career has always been based on creating abundance. For the past half century, she has commissioned, premiered, recorded, and helped get published much of the modern American piano repertoire. Saturday afternoon showed that she has never done it for herself, but always for us. ■
- Ursula Oppens: spiveyhall.org
- Jerome Lowenthal: jerome-lowenthal.com
- Radio Free Brooklyn: radiofreebrooklyn.org