Ursula Oppens is a renowned champion of contemporary music, who worked with all the greats of the 20th and 21st centuries. – TIME dubbed her ‘The Madonna of contemporary music’. She has a close bond with the American composer Laura Kaminsky, whose music is featured on the album Fantasies: Ursula Oppens plays Laura Kaminsky.
When and how did you get interested in music from the early 20th century onwards?
‘There are many roads to my interest in contemporary music. My parents, emigres from Europe, felt that they had left great music behind. At least that is what they told me, but I suspect that they were in fact interested in the music of our time. I have my father’s membership card from 1945 in the International Society for Contemporary Music. My mother had actually taken a course with Anton Webern, but was very reluctant to talk about it.’
‘There were also a number of seminal events: a concert and lecture demonstration by the Juilliard String Quartet of Elliott Carter’s 2nd String Quartet in the summer of 1961. The following winter, my freshman year in college, Pierre Boulez gave the Norton lectures at Harvard, and I remember a wonderful concert of his music, featuring Le Marteau Sans Maître and Leonard Stein performing the Piano Sonata No. 3.’
Then I became aware that there were composers all around me, and I found their music fascinating. When I returned to New York after college, I became a devotee of the concerts of The Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. Together with some close friends we started the group Speculum Musicae in 1971.’
‘It is always exciting to hear something that you don’t know, and to gradually make sense of it. I recently had the wonderful experience of hearing Laura Kaminsky’ latest piano work, Alluvion played by five different pianists; each interpreted it somewhat differently, but also my ears were changing as I got to know it better.’
You’ve been championing modern music for a very long time now, was it difficult to get composers such as Schoenberg, Carter or Ligeti programmed when you started out your career?
‘This is actually a hard question to answer. I think the main difficulty was to play these composers without being pigeon-holed as someone who could only play new music. As for the general attitude towards modern music, of course this has varied much over time. To this day there are venues that are mainly interested in the new and exploratory, and others that imagine the only way to make ends meet is to play the old favourites. But many of the organizations supporting young performers are emphasizing that we need both the new and the old.’
‘The attitude of the organizers is very important for the impact on the audience. ‘I think the public responds very much to their enthusiasm – or lack thereof. If he or she brings across the feeling they are only programming contemporary music because it is a condition of some grant or institution, you can imagine how the audience will respond…’
You have commissioned works from a lot of composers, were they always happy to comply, or did you at times have to convince them?
‘I was always able to find funds to pay the composers, which is a very important part of the commissioning process, and of course, they know my own work. When I commissioned Conlon Nancarrow, who had written very little for live performers for many years, I sent him recordings of The People United Will Never Be Defeated (Frederic Rzewski) and Night Fantasies (Elliott Carter). Thus I hoped to convince him that I was not afraid of difficult music and also that my politics were reasonably close to his. He accepted my request and honoured me with Three Canons for Ursula in 1988.’
You have a long-standing relationship with Laura Kaminsky. How did you get acquainted and how has your friendship developed?
‘I first knew Laura as a presenter who hired me on various occasions. Then gradually, I heard various works of hers, and we became friends and have had wonderful long discussions about a wide variety of topics. I believe that my performance of Fantasy and also our planning for the Piano Concerto predate the premiere of her opera As One in 2014, that catapulted her to the forefront in the world of new music.’
How would you position Laura Kaminsky?
‘I believe that Laura Kaminsky is one of the most important American composers of her generation, and that her reputation will grow very rapidly as her operas and other works get heard.’
‘Laura’s music is harmonically very, very original – atonal yet honouring the harmonic tensions of tonality. She has a vast rhythmic palette. Most of all I think she dares to express extreme emotions – and brings the listener with her anyway.
You commissioned the Piano Quintet that opens the CD. Was it your specific wish she compose a quintet, or did you simply ask her to write ‘something’ for you?
‘Yes, I specifically wanted a Piano Quintet to play with the Cassatt Quartet. I find the Piano Quintet to be a particularly wonderful instrumental combination: one thinks of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorák, Franck, Shostakovich, Amy Beach, not to mention Wuorinen, Carter, Hemphill, León, Tower and other quintets of our time.’
Have you worked on the piece together in any way?
‘Generally, and in this case, I am not involved with the composer while s/he is writing a new work. Once it is finished, and I or we play it, there may still be small changes. Of course, we agree in advance on approximate length, instrumentation, etcetera, but I think it is best not to interfere with the composer’s own vision. I love the orchestration, and I believe that the orchestral players are delighted with the transparent and varied texture. – It has meant the world to me she offered it as a gift for my 75th birthday!’
The Quintet mingles West African drumming patterns with Eastern European irregular dance rhythms, how does this work out for the musicians?
‘At first we were rehearsing it very slowly, and struggling with each and every measure. Then Laura came to a rehearsal, and pointed out that if we played it closer to tempo, we would be able to hear the rhythm. And that solved all our problems. As with pieces by György Ligeti, who also employed African and Eastern European rhythms, one has to work both in painstaking detail and also keep an overview of the sounds and melodies.’
Laura Kaminsky wrote ‘Reckoning for Piano Four Hands’ especially for the cd. It seems to be a protest against the divisive rhetoric of former president Trump. Can one hear this in the music, and could a staunch Trump supporter play this piece?
‘I believe the piece will outlast any memories of Trump! As for the composition: almost all composers of four-hand music, from Mozart onwards, take great delight in having the two pianists play the same notes and fight for the same space. Laura is no exception. But we also get to play wonderful counterpoint, to support each other in virtuoso music, and enjoy quiet, beautiful harmonies.’
The CD is named after the 4-part ‘Fantasy’ Laura composed for the pianist Jenny Lin, how does this fit in with the rest of the pieces?
‘I was most interested in presenting a single composer in a wide range of output, so each work on the CD is for a different instrumental combination. And the Fantasy is such a very grand work for solo piano, I simply had to include it.’
What, to you, is the most striking aspect of Laura Kaminsky’s style?
‘As with the other composers I admire the most, I cannot predict her next piece, no matter how much I study her previous works. Everything she writes connects to the human being and the human voice, but I cannot say exactly how she achieves this…’
‘It’s this mysterious, intangible quality that makes her music so enchanting.’
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