CD ‘Fantasy’ Laura Kaminsky: scintillating music featuring star pianist Ursula Oppens

In the United States she is a celebrity, but in the Netherlands Laura Kaminsky (1956) is fairly unknown. Undeservedly so, because her music is both powerful and poetic and has an effervescent energy. The recently released CD Fantasy contains four compositions that were written between 2007 and 2019. All pieces were composed with or for piano and are played by Ursula Oppens. The subtitle ‘Ursula Oppens plays Kaminsky‘ highlights the decades-long friendship between composer and performer.

Ursula Oppens

Oppens is a well-known advocate of modern music and is also a regular guest in our country. Numerous icons of the avant-garde have composed pieces for her, including György Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Joan Tower and Meredith Monk. No wonder, because her playing is unprecedentedly rich and nuanced; she is the ideal interpreter for every composer. – Three of the pieces on the CD were composed especially for Oppens.

Irregular rhythms

Like Bartók and Ligeti, Laura Kaminsky often makes use of irregular rhythms. From 1992 to 1993 she studied African drum patterns in Ghana, three years later she delved into the characteristic dance rhythms in irregular metres of Eastern Europe. Her music breathes great freedom and switches at lightning speed between weightless cascades of notes in the style of Debussy, wild hammerings in the style of Prokofiev, jazzy syncopations, and tones placed pointillistically in space.

The Piano Quintet was created in 2019 as a gift for Oppens, who celebrated her 75th birthday that year. The opening movement is built on a rhythmic groove in 13/8 time, in which piano and strings seem to want to outdo each other with fierce rhythmic motifs; the second movement is a solemnly spun-out lament; in the third and final movement, thundering piano clusters and aggressive string lines are infused with lilting lyricism. Oppens and the Cassatt String Quartet give a spirited performance.

Fantasy, the solo piece from which the CD derives its title, is the only one not written for Oppens. In the booklet Kaminsky calls their collaboration ‘a fantasy, a dream come true’. In about twenty minutes, many different atmospheres pass by. Frolicsome runs remind one of Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire and swinging boogie-woogie is alternated with faltering rhythms à la Conlon Nancarrow or a mangled waltz.

The single-movement Piano Concerto that Kaminksy composed in 2011, has a strikingly chamber music approach. It opens with a swirling cadenza over the entire piano keyboard, with a double bass sneaking in on stocking feet with long sustained notes. Magnificent solos by flute, oboe, bassoon and trumpet, gossamer strings and atmospheric percussion build the tension to a shrill, forte climax. Then the orchestra falls silent abruptly, whereupon the piano embarks on another cadenza and the story starts all over again, as it were. Hats off to Oppens, the Arizona State University Orchestra and conductor Jefferey Meyer for their excellent interpretation.

Laura Kaminsky (c) Rebecca Allan

Country in turmoil

Perhaps the most beautiful piece is Reckoning for piano four hands Kaminsky composed in 2019 especially for the CD. It is performed by Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal. In her explanatory notes, Kaminsky refers to the ‘tumultuous political landscape’ and increasing polarisation in her country; the subtitle reads ‘Five Miniatures for America’. Without mentioning former President Trump by name, the titles of the five miniatures speak volumes.

In ‘Majestic. Yet.’ the two pianists create an image of a still powerful country, with solemn chords and sparkling swings of notes. ‘Hurtling. Still.’ paints a picture of stockbrokers swarming on Wall Street. Lovely motifs in the treble register are stopped by angry chords in the low register in ‘Reverie’; this procedure is intensified in ‘Divided’. In the closing ‘Forward. Yet.’ cautious optimism shines through.

For those who don’t know the music of Kaminsky, Fantasy is a brilliant introduction, for the connoisseur it is yet another confirmation of her quality.

This review first appeared in the Aug/Sept issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze. In July I interviewed Ursula Oppens for my blog, and played Reckoning in my radio show on Concertzender.

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to CD ‘Fantasy’ Laura Kaminsky: scintillating music featuring star pianist Ursula Oppens

  1. Pingback: Die Nieuwe Muze CD Review Fantasy Oppens Plays Kaminsky “powerful and poetic … effervescent energy.” – Laura Kaminsky | New Music Composer

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