Ursula Oppens regularly plays some of the most complex and difficult piano music modern composers can produce. The composers who have written works for her make an honor roll of American classical music - composers such as Elliott Carter, John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen, Joan Tower, Frederic Rzewski and dozens of others.
Oppens deserves to play it safe once in a while with something old, safe and established, maybe something by Beethoven or Schumann.
For Oppens, though, there is nothing safe about the established classics. “People today look at classical music as something that was always known to be a masterpiece, something that was always safe and something you could count on.
“I like to think of the classical repertoire as new and astonishing when it was written, and none of it was all that safe. I hope what astonishes me about any piece I play comes through.”
Tonight at the Opera House, Oppens will perform classics from both the 19th and the 20th centuries with the Spokane Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Klauspeter Seibel. Oppens will play Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro Appassionato and Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. The orchestral part of the program includes Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.
Oppens was born in New York - her mother a pianist and her father a musicologist. “I grew up in an environment that was very, very intense. My parents had come to America in 1938, and American music and American culture were new to them. Their music was mainly the German classics. I got involved with 20th century music because I wanted to find some music for myself, music that was not something I’d heard before or that my parents had presented to me.”
Oppens considered a career outside music. She graduated from Radcliffe College, an English literature and economics major. But she returned to music, earning a master’s degree at the Juilliard School. Her training combined the Russian style learned from Rosina Lhevinne, the German school of her parents and Leonard Shure and the Italian of Guido Agosti.
When she was growing up, Oppens’ parents spent summers in Colorado at the Aspen Music Festival. “I must have heard a lot of new music there,” she recalls. “But it was also there, about 25 years ago, I first heard the Schumann Introduction and Allegro Appassionato. Anton Kuerti played it and he said he preferred it to Schumann’s concerto. Now that’s a remark one remembers.
“The piece has been in the back of my mind for a long time now,” Oppens says. “This is my first time playing it, and I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces of all time.”
Both the Schumann work Oppens will play and Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds are new to the Spokane Symphony’s programs. The Schumann is not quite long enough to stand alone as a full-scale concerto might, and the Stravinsky is accompanied only by the orchestra’s brass and woodwinds.
“The Concerto for Piano and Winds is very ‘Stravinsky,’ all right,” Oppens says. “But it’s just at that edge between being complicated and dissonant and being made accessible having bits of popular music weaving in and out of it.”
Tonight’s guest conductor was born in Offenbach, Germany. Seibel made his conducting debut in Munich’s Theater am Gartnerplatz after studying piano, voice, flute, horn and composition in Nuremberg and in Munich. He has conducted both opera and orchestral concerts in Europe and America.
Seibel has been music director of the Kiel Opera and the Kiel Philharmonic in Germany since 1987. He was recently appointed music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic (formerly the New Orleans Philharmonic), a position he will assume this fall.
The music on tonight’s program will be discussed in a pre-concert talk by Spokane Symphony pianist Linda Siverts beginning at 7 p.m. in the Opera House auditorium.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: The Spokane Symphony Orchestra with pianist Ursula Oppens and guest conductor Klauspeter Seibel Location and time: Opera House, tonight at 8 Tickets: $11 to $25 available at the symphony ticket office, 624-1200, and G&B; outlets