In Concert With a Timeless Muse

Pianis Ursula Oppens performs older music with new music for variety and historical perspective.
A champion of classical and contemporary music, pianist Ursula Oppens has a lot to brag about. Twice nominated for a Grammy, she has also appeared as a soloist with major orchestras in the United States and abroad.

When Oppens, a distinguished professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, is not on stage, she directs conTEMPO, a new music group at the college. She also teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. Oppens recently talked to Salute to Scholars about her busy life.

You were only 25 when you had your debut at Carnegie Hall. Do you still consider that one of your greater experiences?

Absolutely. It was one of the most astonishing experiences of my life. Especially since I was a New Yorker, so there were lots of people that I knew there.

Is there an interesting adventure you would like to share?

I was playing in Venice. It was in part of the Biennale. I wanted to play a very difficult piece by Elliott Carter called "Night Fantasies" by memory, I wanted to test myself. About two minutes into the piece, a men's chorus started rehearsing Borodin in a room nearby. And I was so scared that if I stopped I would never be able to do it again. I just kept going. That was probably silly of me. I should've stopped.

Why did you turn to teaching?

It's partially becoming older and really wanting to give something to younger people. I find it really exciting to have younger people find their own footing in the musical world.

What is your schedule like now?

I play about 30 to 35 concerts a year. My energies are divided almost equally, but I consider performing and teaching indivisible.

You perform contemporary and classical music in the same program. Why?

Because all music has history. One might say that I play older music in a program with new music to show part of this history, and I play new music when I am playing older music to remind the audience that the old music was once also brand-new. Also, I think the variety is pleasant.

But do you see an advantage in playing the work of composers who are still alive?

Yes! When I play a piece, let's say of Beethoven, I do have the score, but I know that I am also deciding it in the context of my time. So I'm not even trying to do a historically authentic performance. There's nothing like being able to ask a composer, "What did you have in mind here?" Also, as a teacher, when I work with a composer and my student is working on the same piece by that composer, I will have, to the best of my abilities, firsthand knowledge about it. It's a real privilege for one to take advantage of one's own time.

Do you listen to music for fun?

I won't just listen casually. Not that my ears are tired, but listening passively isn't something I usually do. I either listen if I'm curious to hear something, or I just don't listen.

What has surprised you most about the students at Brooklyn College?

A number of them have done other things while attending school. They are active, working musicians. I'm not sure I was expecting them to be quite as fantastic as they are.

What message would you give to aspiring concert pianists?

The main thing for every young performer to realize is that it is a very varied profession and there's no single model of what a career should look like, and they should just be alert to the chances of music as they develop around them.

Has modern technology made it easier for concert pianists to get themselves out there?

Distribution of recording allows you to distribute from computer to computer without needing a store to stock your record label. But the basics of recording are just as difficult as they ever were. You need a good hall and a beautiful piano. That's not changed by technology.