Ursula Oppens is a world class pianist and educator from New York City. Having a mother who taught piano and a father who had a Doctorate in Musicology, Ursula began her journey in music at a very young age. She received private lessons throughout her youth and spent a few summers at the Aspen Music festival in Colorado, as her parents were very involved with its production. After receiving a B.A. Degree in (English Literature) at Radcliffe and a M.S. Degree for (Piano) at Juilliard, Ursula began her career by entering piano competitions and making contacts. Throughout her performance career she has played at Carnegie hall and other special venues throughout the world. Ursula is well versed it the Western music classics but has premiered works by many contemporary composers such as: Elliot Carter, Luciano Berio, William Bolcom, Frederic Rzewski and many others. She began her professional teaching career as a faculty member at Northwestern University and now has a position at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at City University of New York. Ursula is a four-time Grammy Nominee. I recently spoke with Ursula about her career.
R.V.B. - Hello Ursula, Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island. How are you enjoying this beautiful New York day?
U.O. - Well it's kind of a perfect day. I have various appointments, so I'm doing my usual things
R.V.B. - You get to go out and about today... very nice. I read that you make a point to consistently practice the piano quite a few hours a day. Do you plan your day around this?
U.O. - Each day is different. I do a certain amount of teaching as well as practicing. I like to have coffee and take a walk the first thing in the morning. It really clears my head. That's an ideal day. A typical day might be... get up, take a walk and practice in the morning, and teach in the afternoon. Last week I was in a chamber music festival in Iceland.
R.V.B. - What a wonderful place to visit.
U.O. - It was fantastic. I had a lot of fun playing with wonderful musicians.
R.V.B. - We're you part of an ensemble?
U.O. - I was part of the festival. The difference is, an ensemble is people that normally play together. A festival has people that don't normally play together. We go there, rehearse and play. It's a lot of fun.
R.V.B. - What was the setup? What musicians did you have playing with you?
U.O. - I played one piece inside of a large ensemble, with mainly Icelandic musicians... a couple of Americans. I did a 2 piano piece with my friend and companion Jerome Lowenthal. I did another very big piece for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists, with another Icelandic pianist and 2 Icelandic percussionists. I also did a Schumann work with an English cellist.
R.V.B. - You did quite a few pieces.
U.O. - The festival was 4 days and there were sometimes 2 concerts in a day.
R.V.B. - Did you watch the other performers when you weren't performing?
U.O. - Yes... and they were all wonderful. There was a particularly wonderful American violist named Jennifer Stumm.
R.V.B. - Do you teach privately?
U.O. - I normally teach at the Brooklyn College and the graduate center at the University of New York. Sometimes I have people on a friendly basis. I don't officially teach privately. I didn't actually start teaching until I was around 50.
R.V.B. - You focused your efforts as a concert pianist up until that point?
U.O. - Yes.
R.V.B. - From the humble beginnings you were exposed to music, as your parents were musicians. When did you become aware of music?
U.O. - Well my mother was a pianist and a piano teacher. The story that she told me was that when she was pregnant with me, she invited a friend over to practice the "Hammerklavier", because she thought that would be a very good prenatal influence on me. So if you want to know the beginning (haha).
R.V.B. - You can't get closer to the beginning than that. (haha) What age did you begin playing the piano?
U.O. - I started reading music at the age of 3 1/2, but I started lessons at 5 with a friend of my mother.
R.V.B. - Your mother helped you also along with this process also?
R.V.B. - Tell me a little about your father. He was a noted musicologist.
U.O. - He had a Doctorate in musicology. He was also trained as a lawyer. He wrote the program notes for the Aspen Music Festival for many years. That's basically his legacy. He also wrote some articles on literature for German magazines.
R.V.B. - The Aspen Music Festival is not only a great festival but it's a picturesque place to perform.
U.O. - It sure is. I was there every summer as a child and I've been there a few times since then to perform... but not on a regular basis. My mother was on the faculty and my father was there tuning pianos and writing program notes. I was a child at 7 years old and I was basically interested in horseback riding. I was a child and I was there because my parents were there.
R.V.B. - Were you aware of the beautiful music going on while you were there.
U.O. - Of course. I mean I was playing in a way that a seven year old does. By the time I was 12, I had already studied one summer with Victor Babin who was one of the most esteemed teachers there. I was playing the piano just like the other students.
R.V.B. - Did you participate in music throughout grade school while you were privately being trained?
R.V.B. - What did you major in when you went to college?
U.O. - I went to the Juilliard prep division for a few years. I actually didn't take any lessons in college for a while, but I did a great deal of playing. I went to Juilliard after I completed college.
R.V.B. - How was your experience there. I see that you studied with Rosina Lhevinne and Felix Galimir.
U.O. - I loved them both. They were marvelous teachers, marvelous musicians, wonderful people and very inspiring for me.
R.V.B. - I noticed that you also studied with Leonard Shure. He has very impressive lineage which goes back to Artur Schnabel. Do you feel that because of that lineage, you're partially carrying the torch?
U.O. - I don't know. I feel that we all read music as well as we can, and as faithfully as we can, but we interpret it somewhat differently. I don't feel that I'm carrying a particular torch... I'm trying the best I can.
R.V.B. - Now you chose to primarily perform new music from contemporary composers, although you can play the standards. When you made your transition into a professional in music, what was your plan?
U.O. - There wasn't a plan. I went to Harvard University, where there was no performance department, but there were composers there. Some of my musical friends happened to be composers. I was also interested in the fact that I could play Beethoven and ask them, "Can you play this passage like this?". I could play for a living composer and say "Is this what you meant when you wrote this?". That was how my interests really developed. I love playing music from all periods so there wasn't really a plan. But I have done a lot of new music and I have worked with a lot of composers.
R.V.B. - I guess each composer has a different approach with music and you can ask him or her about their approach, which brings a nice variety.
U.O. - Right. You have to know what the notation means. If you're playing a Mozart piano sonata, you should know what a Mozart Opera sounds like. If you're playing a work of George Crumb, you should know what his other pieces sound like. It gives you an insight to the piece that you're playing.
R.V.B. - You mentioned interpreting music notation. A Beethoven sonata can be interpreted different ways by different pianists?
U.O. - There are certain parameters that should be obeyed. You start with the notes. There are also dynamics and tempo indications. Although Beethoven only put certain tempo marks to certain pieces. Different people have different opinions about that. If a piece says Allegro, you shouldn't play it like a funeral march. (haha). We do try to understand the sound that a composer imagined. I had a very interesting experience with a work of Elliot Carter... which he wrote for pianists. Is has been played by quite a number of pianists. He was very happy with performances that sounded quite different from one another.
R.V.B. - The are certain composers of his era seen to enjoy chance in their compositions.
R.V.B. - Tell me about your experience of working with Elliot Carter. How did you enjoy working with him?
U.O. - He was really the greatest inspiration in my life... musically. He was very specific about what he wrote and that taught me to read music with great care. If he said "I have a diminuendo here" and I didn't do it, he noticed. There was no reason for me to be sloppy reading music. Of course he was so well read and was interested in so many things. He knew all music. For instance when he was writing a quintet for winds and piano, he studied Beethoven, Mozart and the other greats who wrote quintets of the past. He was a very warm person and a great influence on me.
R.V.B. - When you worked with him, did you go to his place"
R.V.B. - I gather you have the same setup.
U.O. - Basically yes.
R.V.B. - Do you compose any of your own music?
U.O. - I've written one piece once for Joan Tower. She said "I've written for you all my life and now you have to write something for me. It was for her birthday one year and I wrote a short piano piece, but basically I don't write music?
R.V.B. - When you went into the professional world, you worked with composers. How did you go about getting work?
U.O. - Like many other young pianists, I entered some competitions. I won a big one, which was a Busoni competition. I also did pretty well in a few smaller ones. I also won "Young Concert Artist" which really helped me a great deal. "Young Concert Artists" helps young musicians get concerts. That's really how it started. I was also one of the founders of a new music group. I also played a lot of freelance engagements. I played as an extra pianist with the New York Philharmonic. I played solo with them in other situations. Basically competitions are a very good route to get started playing concerts.
R.V.B. - Was there extra pressure added when competing in these competitions?
U.O. - As Rosina Lhevinne once said... she likes for her students to enter competitions because they'll practice, instead of going to the movies. (haha)
R.V.B. - (haha) She makes a valid point.
U.O. - Basically there's a group of people who are more or less the same age. You do the competitions and you become friends. You get to know people from other countries and it's quite exciting.
R.V.B. - Do you feel that you may have missed anything in your young adult years by being a musician? Like you mentioned going to the movies.
U.O. - Well of course one has to go to the movies. I mean I go less than I would like to. You're delighted to play a concert, but then you've got to learn the music. It may take up more time than you think. I love going to the movies, music, dance, drama and the opera. I like hiking and taking walks.
R.V.B. - Where are some of the places that you have hiked... that you enjoyed?
U.O. - The Catskills. I've done a little bit in the Adirondacks. My friend Jerry and I once did a 10 day trip to Nepal. That was a big adventure. I love walking in nature.
R.V.B. - Did you ever go to Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills?
U.O. - Oh Yes... straight up.
R.V.B. - Was there any particular piece that was a real challenge for you?
U.O. - There have been 2 pieces that were written for me that have entered the repertoire as challenging. One would be Elliot Carter's "Night Fantasies", and another would be Frederic Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated". Those have had a special place for me. There's the "Hammerklavier", Brahms concerto, Ligeti concerto... and Chopin. They're all pretty challenging.
R.V.B. - Are there any special performances that you've had in your career.
U.O. - Playing at Carnegie hall is the top... only because it's the big hall in the city where I grew up. I played a couple of solo recitals there, and a couple of shows with orchestras. I played a concert once with Kathy Battle. Those were all real high points of my life. Playing the Elliot Carter piano concert has been thrilling. Playing with an orchestra is one of the most exciting things one can do.
R.V.B. - Where have you performed outside of the United States, that may have been special?
U.O. - The Busoni competition was is Italy. I played in England a lot... in Germany quite a bit. I've played a little in Sweden, Austria, France, Bosnia, Croatia and in Japan.
R.V.B. - Now your life as a teacher... you started out at Northwestern?
U.O. - Yes, that was my first serious position.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy sharing your acquired knowledge with the next generation.
U.O. - I really, really loved it. I've by and large have had really wonderful students, who are intelligent, responsive and good musicians. It's an exciting challenge to help them improve. I was very fortunate to start out at Northwestern because it's such a great university. Sometimes they say a great player won't get in because they don't have the grades. I was also thinking that these are people that are so intelligent. That made them a great deal of fun to work with.
R.V.B. - Were the summer programs at Tanglewood fun for you?
U.O. - They were. I think it was more fun for the students. There's a wonderful variety of activities that goes on there. A student will play quite a bit of new music. A keyboard player will probably play under one of the world's great conductors... a keyboard part in an orchestral piece. They do a lot of chamber music, of all kinds. The students enjoy it and I enjoy it too.
U.O. I spent time with John and Rosemary Harbison. Emanuel Ax is there a great deal. One doesn't necessarily go and introduce themselves to the big stars, but I did enjoy working with my colleagues.
R.V.B. - You eventually came home and started teaching at Brooklyn. How did you wind up there?
U.O. - I had been planning to move to Chicago but my personal life changed, and my friend lived in New York. I was commuting, and it was a little bit tiring. One of my favorite colleagues from Northwestern, (Amnon Wolman) had taken a position at Brooklyn College. He asked me one day if I would be interested in being a professor there? I said "Yes." Then his life had changed. By the time I went to Brooklyn College, he went back to Israel... where his family was. I've enjoyed Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York... which are connected. Brooklyn is also another school where you have to be quite good academically to get in. I work with the new music group there. I have chamber music and private students. I basically have the same thing at City University, where I work with doctoral students.
R.V.B. - You've recorded a lot of pieces in your career and again, there's a lot of diversity in it. Is the recording process more challenging because of the fact that everything has to be perfect when the red light comes on?
U.O. - Well you can make a mistake but you just don't use it. (haha) There is editing in recording now. In a live performance you might make a mistake and people will forget it. You don't want to release a recording with that mistake. They'll hear it every single time. (haha)
R.V.B. - Can you tell me about you're involvement in The American Academy of Arts and Sciences?
U.O. - It's a wonderful organization and I'm very honored to be part of it. I'm occasionally part of the nominating committee and we've added some spectacular new members. When I retire I will become more active.
R.V.B. How did you like the Grammy nomination process?
U.O. - It was really fantastic because in my world in general, I'm limited to the field of classical music, but going out to Los Angeles and hearing these super duper pop stars like Lady Gaga and Beyonce live, is just amazing. I probably wouldn't go to a show at a big amphitheater but they are really great performers. The hole event is really fun.
R.V.B. - Were all of your nomination parties on the west coast?
U.O. - I didn't go to the first two but the last three I have and yes.... they were all in Los Angeles.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of your accomplishments up to this point?
U.O. - The amount of pieces that have been written for me. There are many other composers, like Charles Wuorinen and Nancarrow, who also wrote fantastic pieces for me. I'm really pleased with that. I'm really pleased with the fact that I think my teaching has enabled a lot of young people to do well in their lives. I've just had a great time playing.
R.V.B. - It's a great lifestyle and it's a privilege to be able to play music.
R.V.B. - What are your current projects?
U.O. - My summer involves playing and giving master classes. I will be a judge on the jury of a Cleveland piano competition. It's a very important competition because the finalist gets to play with the Cleveland Orchestra. Then I go to Italy to do some playing and teaching.
R.V.B. - It sounds like your staying busy. It sounds like your enjoying your career. Keep on hiking.
U.O. - Ok. It's wonderful to talk to someone who asks "Have you been to Kaaterskill Falls?".
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time with me. I appreciate it.
U.O. - Thank you for taking this time with me. I've enjoyed it very much.
R.V.B. - It's my pleasure.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Ursua Oppens visit the Brooklyn College of music website.
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