Pianist Ursula Oppens
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
After earning her master's degree from the Juilliard School of Music,
Ursula Oppens won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in
1968. This win led to her New York City debut at Carnegie Hall in 1969.
That same year she took first prize at the Busoni International Piano
Competition. In 1971 Oppens co-founded the contemporary music ensemble
Speculum Musicae. She was one of the first pianists to test the
boundaries of traditional concert programming by regularly performing
both classics and contemporary pieces on the same programs. One of the
foremost champions of new music, several modern composers have written
pieces for her, and praise her invaluable encouragement and advice in
composition and illumination of their music.
In 2008, Oppens became the Distinguished Professor of Music at Brooklyn
College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. From 1994
through the end of the 2007/2008 academic year she served as John Evans
Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University.
This conversation was held in April of 1990. She was in Chicago
for another varied program which, as usual, included works written for
her . . . . .
Usually I ask how you select your
repertoire from the wide range of repertoire, but you, particularly,
have an expanding repertoire! So how do you decide
which pieces you will learn and which pieces you will set aside?
Ursula Oppens: Basically
you learn what
you’re dying to play! I remember the genesis of this particular
program; I commissioned the Nancarrow
pieces. [See my Interview with
Conlon Nancarrow] That was a very exciting commission to me
because I had
admired — loved — his
player piano music for many, many years. He had
only written one three-minute tango for living pianist in ’84, but it
was the first
thing he had done since 1940, so I felt it was a long
courtship. I got a grant and he agreed to write the pieces.
He said it might take him a very, very long time to write
them, and in fact they arrived, as it were, by return mail, which meant
then I was behind! But I
was in the fortunate position of being able to plan a whole
program around them because it was so far in advance. I
received them in ’88 and first played them a year
BD: About how
much playing time is involved in these works?
he is so involved with the player piano, did he specify
exactly how long it should take to play?
UO: No, he
specify, but he gave me a tempo, and in fact before I could play it I
figured out the tempo and how many measures there were, and more or
less decided how long it would be. He has written many, many
studies for player piano; they’re very brilliant and quite
contrapuntal, and somewhat jazzy.
BD: I did an
interview with him, and presented a
seventy-fifth birthday program for him on WNIB. It’s fascinating
it really is!
it’s fantastic, and this music is
fantastic, too. So I had this new piece that reminded me of
fireworks and spectacular
things, so I thought about what I could do around it. Well,
you’ve got to do more etudes, more spectacular kinds
of pieces like it, and for many
years as a listener I had known the Stravinsky etudes that are
also to some extent polyrhythmic. They’re not as
grandly polyrhythmic as Nancarrow, but they’re also polyrhythmic, so
they just came to mind. They’re also very romantic and
Russian sounding, so then Rachmaninoff came to mind!
BD: So this
is how you build your programs,
little by little?
UO: This one
came about little by
little. Actually, the Rachmaninoff etudes I hadn’t known, so
I was just reading them and I was amazed, because to me they’re very
different from most of the Rachmaninoff I know. They’re small
pieces and they’re kind of character pieces; they’re very Russian, some
of them. Anyway, so
that’s how that part of the program got filled. Then I thought,
well, I have lots of little pieces so I should
have a great big long piece on it, and that’s the part of the
program that has changed. I had been playing a Schubert sonata,
which was very long, and now I’m doing the Brahms Handel
Variations. I’m not sure whether that’s many more little
pieces, or one great big piece! That’s what I’m trying to decide
at the moment, because it has
elements of both, of course.
BD: If this
particular concert really works
well and holds together, will you then repeat it at other
UO: I would
like to, because I
really love the pieces! I open with a Stravinsky
sonata, which is a very different aspect of Stravinsky, but it
was after I made up this program that Nancarrow said Stravinsky’s
one of his favorite composers! So then I was happy!
BD: Another thread
to hold it together?
another thread, but counterpoint is the thread, really. In that
sense, counterpoint is very
much in the Brahms, too, and I think that really is the
BD: Is this
the first time that the Nancarrow work will be
I played it first almost a year ago,
and I’ve played it about seven or eight times.
BD: Is he
pleased? I assume he’s heard a tape of the
actually came to the premiere because it coincided with New Music
which was in New York, and he seemed very pleased. I’ve worked
hard on the pieces, and
they are fantastic! I think the way he writes music, if you
play what he writes, it sounds good. It isn’t as if
there’s a mystery. The difficulty is to try to play the
BD: Is he
making you a living instrument, or is
he regarding you as an extended player piano?
UO: I think
it’s very much a living instrument! I’ve actually thought that
there’s something very interesting,
because his machine music does not sound mechanical to me at all.
And the piano music, where you
try to be very strict, has some aspect of almost the comedy
of trying to be mechanical, but is also extremely human. Also,
with all the
complicated rhythm, it swings I think. So I feel like a happy
being playing it!
played it seven or eight times. Does it change at all from
UO: The more
I feel I can do to make it swing, the
happier I am, which is how it changes in me, how I change. And
things change in the pianos. I’m not
sure that my conception of the piece is radically
different; it’s more that my being able to do what I want to do
here we have a unique individual who writes for the piano, and yet
usually he writes for a piano which will always sound exactly the same
because of the roll.
UO: I don’t
think that’s why he writes for the
always thought he wrote for the roll because it could do all these
contrapuntal things and had more fingers. There weren’t
pianists around in 1945 in Mexico City who said, “I love
polyrhythms and want to practice them.” I don’t think the exact
repetition of it is actually an
integral element of it; I don’t think that’s the essential
element of it in the first place. There is an extent to which
things like dynamic contrast and a certain kind of seductive pedal
type thing is not really part of the repertoire, you know.
BD: Are you
trying to seduce your audience every time?
kinds of ways?
UO: One of
be with this kind of rhythmic feeling that is not easy, but not remote,
either. It’s just sort of
inviting, and very different from what one has heard, as opposed to the
other ways of seducing with sound effects — which
he really doesn’t do so much, but it’s a
different type of seduction, really.
BD: [With a
sly nudge] Do you find ways of seducing your
audience no matter what you are playing?
UO: I hope
so, if you mean seducing them in that
you’re getting them into the frame of mind that makes you want to play
the piece. In other words, somehow to experience
whatever it is that you experience about the piece that excites
you. So I try to seduce them in that broader sense, yeah.
BD: Do you
then feed off of the audience as they send
vibes back to you? And then you are able to react to that?
UO: You can’t
really tell. It’s a mistake, I
think, to worry too much about it. Let’s say there might
be some place where people don’t applaud as loudly as some other place,
and if you really thought about it, you’d say, “Oh, they don’t like
it. Now what am I to do?” And that may be nothing; it could
the norms of the place. So it’s best not to be concerned.
One shouldn’t worry
about it at all, you know! If it happens, it’s great! But
it isn’t like a concert where they really do give; it isn’t like some
sort of a program where people do shout and yell, so you shouldn’t try
to force something that can’t be.
BD: Do you
adjust your playing at all because of
the size of the hall — if it is a great big huge
barn, or a very small,
yeah. Oh yeah, very much.
BD: How so?
a moment] Well actually, not very much. The main thing that
changes is what one feels to be the resonance
one has. If you’re in a large, wonderful
hall, a place like
Carnegie Hall, it’s very resonant and there’s a gorgeous piano
can do anything you want; you can play as softly as
you like! I remember playing a concerto there, and people who
came to the rehearsal kept
saying, “You know, you can play softer.” And I just couldn’t
believe it, because you can’t do that in every hall. As a soloist
you usually can, but with concertos you can’t always.
I guess it’s the question of what do you feel
is the sound world you have, more than the size of the hall. And
I think very much everyone loves playing in a place where
you get a lot of sound coming back to you. Then you feel
wonderful and that you can do anything!
BD: I would
think, though, that you’re almost in the
worst place to hear balances and sound being at the
keyboard. It would be better if you were out in the tenth row.
UO: Well, I
don’t know! When
you’re a soloist, it’s not that much of a problem. When you play
with orchestra, really different things can be happening in the tenth
row than what you hear, especially if the winds are twenty
feet behind and you can barely hear them. Someone in the
twentieth row might say, “They’re drowning you out!” But as a
soloist within the world of the
piano itself, I think what your balance is very much what comes out
because it’s all starting from one spot.
BD: Do you
have any problem adjusting to each
different instrument? You’re plagued with having a
new instrument almost every time you play.
no difficulty adjusting to beautiful
instruments! [Both laugh] Really there’s infinite
difficulty adjusting! There are many different kinds of
beauties, and it’s really fun, actually, especially if
you can have some practice time not on the day of the concert.
You can find out what a piano can do and you do change a
great deal! If a piano has a very beautiful register, you
will really make much more of the music that’s happening there because
you just can’t resist; at least I can’t resist it! There are many
different kinds of beautiful pianos.
BD: Do you
try to make the piano sound like
you, or do you try to get the best out of each instrument?
UO: I would
try to go for the best of each
instrument. If it’s a good piano, I love
the difference, and when I have a series of good pianos, I like nothing
better than playing on a different piano every time! Then you get
a series of dogs, and you sort of wish something else
would happen! But it is fun, how different they are.
back to the idea of seduction, is each new piano like
having a series of lovers?
goodness! [Pause] Or at least making love
with lots of imagination to the same person! [Both laugh]
back to my original question about the selection of repertoire, what is
it that you look for in either an established piece or a brand new
piece that will make
you decide yes, I want to spend some time with the piece?
basically happens the other way
around. What I will feel is I’ve got to play this
piece, and it’s the putting them together where the decision
is. If you say, “I’ve got to play this piece,” then you say,
“What goes with it?” Sometimes the original
impulse is just that, and it becomes an obsession or something you
have to do. What happens now sometimes
is that I played a piece twenty years ago and came to a dead end on
it. Then I’ll be talking
to a friend who’s a musician, and they’ll say something in a fairly
offhand way about that piece, and I’ll suddenly begin
thinking about it in a new way! They like some aspect of
it, and then you realize you haven’t thought about it for fifteen
years! That’s very exciting! It happened, actually, with
the Brahms. That’s one reason I went back to it. I began
thinking about it
in different ways from how I had thought about it before. So that
can be one thing. Another can be
hearing it. With the Rachmaninoff it was quite by
accident. I realized that there were
the Rachmaninoff preludes and etudes, of which I knew some but I
didn’t realize how little I knew of the ones I didn’t know. I was
just reading through them and was originally
going to do a selection. So I started the series. I started
first one and thought this one’s really terrific! Then I got to
the second one and felt I’d
really have to do this one, too! And so on it went.
BD: You wind
up with a concert that’s ten hours long!
yes, and then you curse yourself and say,
“How could I be such a fool?” But with the Rachmaninoff, it
really just happened just by reading them and not believing
that there was such wonderful music by such a popular composer that I
had never heard! So it really happens all kinds of ways. It
also has very much to do with ideas you have when you think
you’re not thinking about it at all.
mentioned that it’s different playing
a concerto and playing solo. How do you divide your career
between solo appearances and chamber appearances and concerto
UO: This year
it’s more concertos than anything.
BD: Is that
UO: A little
bit happenstance. Usually in the summer I do a fair amount of
music. I go to Santa Fe, which I absolutely love, and in
the winter I do very little, because it’s very hard for me to balance
solo playing, whether concerto or recital, and chamber
music because I always think that the chamber music is going to take
up less time than it actually does! [Both laugh] And the
play concertos, the more I find that they really are practically the
same as playing chamber music. The fun of it
is really trying to learn to work with an orchestra. I’m getting
a little older and a little tiny bit
wiser, so I’m trying to think much more about the total
results; not just to leave it up to the conductor to
worry about, but to really participate. I’ve found that makes it
a much more rewarding experience than it used to
be. It used to be I’d sort of think, “How does
this work?” You work with a conductor who
you may have met before
or not, but you haven’t discussed this piece and you might have
completely different ideas. The official role of the
conductor is to accept your ideas...
BD: Do most
of them abide by that rule?
UO: They do,
but it’s more interesting if there’s
give and take, so when a concerto is a
chamber music performance, that’s really exciting! Solo is
wonderful, because it’s the repertoire you choose to do and it’s the
ideas you choose to do. It’s very hard just
because quantitative you are playing more. That’s all. But
then again, you get a chance to try to do what you can do. I
can’t imagine giving up any of them. For me, playing really has
these three components and they are
absolutely tied together. If you stop being able to play with
other people, then eventually I think I would just run into dead ends,
musically. Sometimes the simplest rules
of listening are ones you forget when you play by yourself all the time.
BD: I get the
feeling that if every day was thirty
hours and every week was eight days, it still wouldn’t be enough time
for you to play!
[Laughs] Boy, are you right! Have you gotten that one
BD: You’ve made
some recordings. Do you
play the same in the recording studio as you do in the concert hall?
at right - with Elliott Carter]
is more fun and less
fun. It should be more fun because you know you can do it over
again, so you can take chances. In fact
it is really hard work because you
let no blemishes go through in a recording, and of course a concert has
many. On the other hand, you can walk away from a
concert and say, “Next time!” On a recording you have to stay
‘til it’s done! And in America, it isn’t like they say, “You can
have the studio, so go in every day for three weeks whenever
you feel like it ‘til it’s completely done.” You
usually go in for three hours, or something...
hope that it’s finished?
Yeah. But I feel that in the end the result is the same,
and I have
been happy with my recordings. You have to have a
wonderful engineer or producer, someone who’s really
empathetic. I’ve worked some with
Judy Sherman, and she’s really great because she can
both hear every detail and every wrong note, and also know whether
inspired or not and cheer you on. She has the small
and the big picture, so working with her is very easy!
draws the best out of you?
UO: It draws
the best out of me. I feel
that has a lot to do with it. When I first started, I was making
the record of Beethoven, and the producer criticized my
first phrase! I didn’t know enough to say, “I’ve thought
about this a long time,” so I tried to change it in the session,
and that turned out to be disastrous. Now I sort of feel like I
do know the sound I want before I go in to
record. So in that sense, it’s the same as a concert.
producer should have at least let you
establish your tone and your ideas.
that can happen. It
was an accident, and had I been more confident, it wouldn’t have
bothered me, either!
BD: Once the
record is released and you’re pleased with it, do you then find that
against that recording when you play that work in public?
UO: I haven’t
been playing my
recorded repertoire specifically. It isn’t like
a rock group that might make a record and tour with it. I’m sure
if I did that more, I would change my interpretations more
because they do change over time. And it depends on
what kind of piece it is. A piece like the Carter Night
Fantasies is very much a performer’s
piece about expression. [See my Interview with Elliott
Carter.] So that one changes every time you play
it! I couldn’t play three performances the same. In
fact, I’ve done it ten days in a row and it was different every time
because it was that kind of a piece.
BD: Is one
better than the other, or are they all
just different. There are
different elements in the piece that somehow become more focused.
It could be a different
piano. If a piano has a particular register that’s very
interesting or very beautiful, the music in that register sounds
better than it usually does and becomes somehow a more important part
of the piece. So if that music is more exciting, then you adjust
the others so it will be in some sensible
proportion! So it just happens.
BD: You play
quite a bit
of music which is non-standard; it’s newer, it’s more difficult.
Do you find that you’re getting through to the audiences who either
have come for a new piece, or perhaps have come wishing it was all
Beethoven and Haydn and Scarlatti?
UO: [Thinks a
moment] I’m not sure. You try to get
through to everyone. I don’t like to think of classical music as
an area where people who are adventurous in the rest of their life look
for something safe and predictable. I don’t think that’s what the
music ever was in the first place. So in that sense, no matter
how much I love Beethoven and how much my audience member loves
Beethoven, I don’t want Beethoven to be seen as that which is
comfortable after a hard day’s work. That that isn’t the
love. I think one function of having some unfamiliar music in a
is to just wake up the ears, make someone listen slightly differently
than they listen to something they know already.
BD: Well, we’ve kind
of danced around
it a little bit, so let me ask the big philosophical question
— what is the purpose of music?
Whoo! I wasn’t expecting that! I think music is an
expression of our soul, and I think it might be some of the proof that
we have a soul, or the
definition of it. It’s the meaning of
ourselves — or it’s part of it. We have
objective meanings and meanings of relationships within society that
are very, very important. But then we have the capacity
to feel and to enjoy and to laugh, and I think that’s the soul.
I think that is it.
BD: So you’re
baring your soul each night out on the
UO: Yes, for
better or worse. I mean that for
sure! One is naked. You’re trying, and
sometimes you do well, sometimes you do less well, but I think what
makes it is the concentration of the performer
that actually gets through to the audience; the fact of how
unified you are and how much you’re trying to have everything you are
somehow be focused in this one form of making music. The clearer
your focus is, or the more focused it is, the more
something will communicate to a listener.
BD: You’re a
pianist and you play a lot of new music. Do you try especially
to play new music by women composers?
UO: I haven’t
done anything special. I’ve played a fair amount of wonderful
women composers, but as it came my way, just as I’ve
played other music as it came my way. I would like to be
more active. One problem is simply I always feel I’m
playing a little too much repertory, you know what I mean? [Both
UO: But it’s
a wonderful time because
there really are a lot of interesting women now who we are all getting
BD: Have you
been wanting to commission Ellen Zwilich or Joan Tower, or one of these
other composers? [See my Interview with Ellen
Zwilich, and my Interview
UO: I’ve been
playing a piano
concerto by Joan Tower that she wrote for someone else. It’s
a very nice piece but it’s slightly small-scale. I know lots
of her work, and in this case I’m just dying to be able to commission
another piece because she’s a pianist and I’m a pianist and we’re
friends. I think it would be a different piece. Very often
when someone’s written a piano
concerto, you feel that this is THE piano concerto that they’ve
and the only one that they’re going to write for a ten year
period surrounding it. But in her case, I do have a very
strong desire! So there’s a specific one you hit on.
BD: With all
of this new music that you play, do
you have any advice for someone who wants to write music for piano
UO: Write for
somebody you know, and find out what
they would like. I don’t
mean what they would like aesthetically, but for instance, if
you know a pianist who really would like to play a piece on
their concert, find out in this case what
the rest of the program is, or what they have in mind. Is it a
piece that would open the concert? Is it the sonata that
would be before intermission? I’ve had wonderful experience
with composers. There used to be a lot of fear and a lot
of shyness, thinking
what if I don’t like his music, or what if she doesn’t like my
playing. But that would be the main thing. One thing that’s
really interesting is that for a while, let’s say between 1950 and 1976
or so, there was not all that much
piano music written in this country. You would find many
composers writing fantastic string quartets and brilliant pieces for
mixed ensemble, and nothing for piano, or something that was not nearly
up to the rest! Then starting in ’76, when there were all the
commissions to celebrate the Bicentennial, there seems to have been a
revival of music for the piano. Now almost every composer I can
think of has written lots of wonderful stuff! And it’s
very good because we also used to be afraid — what
if the piano’s
going to become obsolete? It was just the repertoire wasn’t
growing! Now that it’s growing, the piano seems absolutely
not obsolete at all.
BD: Do you
have some advice for young pianists coming
advice — find a composer you know, and
ask the composer to write something for you. And try to be able
to commission a piece, which actually means to pay for it, whether it’s
with money of yours or money from a foundation or a Meet the Composer
grant; or if you’re both students, a spaghetti dinner!
[Both laugh] But realize that it’s work and to
work with someone you know. There’s also a kind
of emphasis on fame and wanting to play the music of a famous
composer, and a composer wanting to be played by a famous
pianist. That’s not very interesting because everyone is, first
limited in how much they can do, and second of all, fame is
fifteen minutes — or if you’re good, it’s thirty
you’re not encouraging people not to play
Beethoven and Mozart?
UO: Oh, no,
no, no, no! I’m just saying that if
you’re thinking of playing a new piece, if you want someone to write a
you, think of the composers who are living in the city you’re living,
where you could work with them, for instance. That’s what I
mean. Don’t necessarily think it must be either
Elliott Carter or John Corigliano, or nobody. [See my Interviews with John
Corigliano.] Think of
someone whose work you admire. For one thing, if you want to play
a new piece,
go to the new music concerts that everyone
says don’t attract a wide audience. They are the
most wonderful resource for people trying to get to know the music of
different composers! That is the best way. Of course play
Beethoven; I just meant in new
music, really try to be adventurous all the way, but also try to take
advantage of being able to work with a composer. Work together
find out. Even listen to what the composer says about
something else; it can give you insight.
BD: Have you done
any writing at all, any composing?
UO: It takes
me half a day to write a four-note
ornament for Mozart, which I love doing! I’m just proud as a
peacock if I’ve come up with
a good ornament, and I really love it, but
I don’t think I’m very good.
BD: With all
of the new music coming
at you, I just wondered if maybe you had a couple of ideas that you
just wanted to get
None. None. Because it’s the area where you have to
do it, I have become
very interested in the question of ornamenting and expanding lines,
and seeing what I can learn about it. I’ve also done some
improvisation within pieces, but I haven’t done an improvisation
in Mozart, for instance. There I really work out what I
do, and the larger cadenzas I play someone else’s, but
it’s worked out. I had a wonderful lesson with Anthony Davis
once. He had written a piece for me, which at one point had a
fermata. I said, “What am I to do
here?” I told him I was
interested, but then I got to it and I hadn’t the slightest idea what
to do! So we went over the rest of the piece and he said,
“You see this motif here? You could do this with it; you can
expand it this way. You can go backwards, you can go upside
down. You can make sequences.” And I thought, “That’s
what Mozart does in the development sections!”
Then I began realizing. So
I’ve gotten to the point that if someone else provides some thematic
material, I am interested in manipulating it. I don’t have the
courage yet to do it all!
there is this continuity
between an eighteenth century Austrian composer and a twentieth century
this thread that connects everyone!
UO: There is
an absolute thread. But it’s not even a surprising thread!
The thread of
improvisation was just broken for a moment, really, in a
little tiny part of the mid-twentieth century. Here is an
anecdote with a Chicago connection. My mother is a woman who grew
up in Hungary and Austria. Some years ago I was playing Easley
Blackwood’s Piano Concerto,[See
my Interview with
Easley Blackwood] and as I was practicing, she said,
“That reminds me a little bit of the improvisations we were doing in
Webern’s class.” I never found out more,
really, but when did this thread get broken? It
must have gotten broken ten minutes ago, or something. Why don’t
we know that?
BD: I can’t
imagine the thread is broken. Perhaps we’re just ignoring the
UO: We just
ignored it! It just got frayed for a second, or we looked in
the other direction. I was rebelling
against having musician parents, and I didn’t really study music very
much, which I regret greatly now. But even at this time the music
education does not make every performer do
composition. Most did until very recently, and at the Paris
Conservatory, you still do! If you look at the
musicians of a slightly older generation, they all composed. Most
of the performers decided that they didn’t compose well enough to
make a career of it, but they all composed! It’s just
our generation that missed out on it.
BD: Do you
encourage your students
to compose at least a bit?
UO: I don’t
have students, but I encourage
everyone I meet to do that.
BD: Where is
music going these days?
UO: In all
kinds of directions.
BD: Too many
no. Actually, that’s one of the other
things that’s really wonderful about it — there’s
really wonderful music being written in many different styles, and I
think people are beginning to be able to hear that. There was a
time when you either believed in one style
or another, and I think by and large that has changed. In New
York it used to be called uptown versus downtown music,
and then at some panel discussion John Cage mentioned that maybe it
should be considered a matter of zip codes, at which point the subject
clearly defined and came to an end! [See my Interview with John Cage.]
music I don’t like at all that many other people do like, but I,
probably more than others, like music in
different styles. But I think this is expanding. For
instance, for some people where minimalism might be
hard to take, someone like Louis Andriessen, who’s extremely witty and
funny but still uses it, becomes someone they can appreciate, even
though there will be that element of minimalism. So, I think it’s
a really wonderful period!
BD: Your new
record has music of both Carter and Adams, and I couldn’t think of two
more divergent styles.
UO: That was
the point I
was making, really. Not only the point, but I do feel
strongly that this is a time where there are many styles that can
coexist. It’s funny, because coexistence means it’s just a
period that’s fertile for many kinds of music.
I’m glad you’ve come to Chicago. I have looked
forward to it, and thank you so much for speaking with me.
that’s very nice. It’s been wonderful talking to you,
I like your questions! Radio is where it’s happening
in America now. Actually I think one of the reasons that
new music and the diversity is flourishing is because of radio, which
has exactly the freedoms that the large record companies don’t
have. The music does get disseminated, and the
people who are interested in that kind of variety are themselves drawn
One last question — is playing piano fun?
UO: For me it
is. Actually, it’s
funny because when I practice more than a certain amount, it’s great
fun, but when I practice less than a certain amount, I get worse and
it becomes frustrating. But I wouldn’t do it if it
weren’t fun. It really is fun! What I mean about practicing
a certain amount is
that when I am practicing a certain amount — basically
I average five hours a day — things really get
better every day
and that is fun. It’s better than it was
yesterday, and you can do a little more than you could! That’s a
great joy, and it’s a physical joy because
you can do it and it sounds good. Even if you can get something
from half-tempo up to fifty-three percent of tempo, you can hear that
difference and you can be pleased by it. So
it is fun, yeah.
URSULA OPPENS, one of the very first artists to grasp the importance of
programming traditional and contemporary works in equal measure, has
won a singular place in the hearts of her public, critics, and
colleagues alike. Her sterling musicianship, uncanny understanding of
the composer’s artistic argument, and lifelong study of the keyboard’s
resources, have placed her among the elect of performing musicians.
An enduring commitment to integrating new music into regular concert
life has led Ms. Oppens to commission and premiere many compositions,
including works by Anthony Braxton, Elliott Carter, Anthony Davis, John
Harbison, Julius Hemphill, Tania León, György Ligeti,
Lutoslawski, Conlon Nancarrow, Tobias Picker, Frederic Rzewski,
Singleton, Joan Tower, Lois V Vierk, Christian Wolff, Amnon Wolman, and
Wuorinen. [Names which are
links refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie found elsewhere on this
A co-founder of Speculum Musicae, Ms. Oppens has an extensive recording
catalogue and has received three Grammy nominations: for her recent
Cedille release, “Oppens plays Carter”, named on “Best of 2008” lists
in The New York Times, the New Yorker magazine and the Chicago Tribune;
for her Vanguard recording of Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United
Will Never Be Defeated”; and for “American Piano Music of Our Time,” a
classic compilation of piano works by 20th century American composers
for the Music & Arts label.
Ursula Oppens studied piano with her mother, the late Edith Oppens, as
well as with Leonard Shure and Guido Agosti. She received her master’s
degree at The Juilliard School, where she studied with Felix Galimir
and Rosina Lhévinne. After 14 years as the John Evans
Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University, Ms. Oppens
joined the faculty of Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music and CUNY
Graduate Center as Distinguished Professor in fall 2008.
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 29,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1994 and 1999. This
made in 2009 and posted on this
website early in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.