With the dwindling of the traditional piano recital, the twice-yearly Adams Foundation Series concerts in Elon University’s intimate Whitley Auditorium are always treats for all keyboard fanciers. The New York-based foundation’s goal is to sponsor recitals by renowned pianists in less heavily populated areas. Past artists have been the late Ruth Laredo, Ann Schein, Stephen Mayr, and John Nakamatsu (who will return to Elon for their spring concert). The audience on this date made up in their enthusiasm for sparse numbers.
Ursula Oppens presented a well-considered program consisting of favorite Romantic works set off by one late classical sonata and one modern piece closely associated with the artist’s championship of modern American music. Among Oppens’ teachers were Leonard Sure, Guido Agosti, and Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School. She made her Carnegie Recital Hall debut under the auspices of Young Concert Artists in 1969 and she won the first prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition that same year. Her many recordings have been dominated by contemporary music but she is equally at home with the established repertoire.
In the absence of program notes, Oppens made brief and germane comments about each piece before it was played. She said all of the pieces came from a musically fecund fifty-year period in the early 19th century, except for the modern work. All of the composers, except for Schubert, had been piano virtuosos. About Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat, Op. 142 (D.935), which opened the program, she said the element of Austrian folk music is too often overlooked. It is present in the left hand syncopation in this impromptu. This was played with a warm singing tone that gave full value to melodies while articulating detail clearly.
Two Köchel numbers for Mozart’s Sonata in F Major — K.533 & K.494 — came about because the composer added an early and more ornate rondo to two more advanced movements written late in his life. Oppens sought to suggest neither the sound of a fortepiano nor the old-fashioned “ivory-figurine” approach that once dominated the first half of the 20th century. She played with great style and used the full resources of the piano to reveal both color and a singing line.
American composer Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) is one of many composers whose works have figured large in Oppens’ career. He composed "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (1975) for her. Oppen’s Vanguard recording of this nearly hour-long set of variations was nominated for a Grammy. His shorter set of variations also composed for her, "Mayn Yingele" (1988), was unusual and fascinating. The title is a Yiddish folk song, “My Young One,” the lament of a young father whose work hours keep him from sharing in his son’s childhood. The 22 very short variations end with a seemingly improvised cascade of trills. Unlike such variations as those of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Rzewski uses far less obvious elements for his often startling treatment. Many hearings would be needed to fully grasp this work.
Chopin’s beloved and ever popular Barcarolle, Op. 60, followed after intermission and received a gorgeous reading. Oppens said that this song of the gondoliers of Venice was in 12/8 rhythm instead of the more usual 6/8. To encourage their fame for singing, the city granted the boatmen free admission to the opera houses. The pianist pointed out the two main themes of Chopin’s elegant Ballad No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47, one heard early that returns at the end, and one in the middle with a rest on the down beat that gives it a breathless quality. Her skilled management of Chopin’s thematic transformations conjured up the atmosphere of a narrative poem.
Oppens said that Schubert’s Fantasie in C Major, Op. 15 (D.760), is considered to be the first big Romantic work of the 19th century. Beethoven was still alive when it was published and Liszt admired it. The four movements, played continuously, are unified by their relationship to the second (Adagio) movement’s variations, based upon a theme taken from the song “Der Wanderer.” Oppens said the eight-bar portion of the song used was the line in which the sun is bleak and cold. She stressed the importance of the rhythm to the composer. Her interpretation was an ideal mix of keyboard detail balanced within the work’s overall structure with close attention to rhythm.
Whitley has many attractions as a concert venue, not least its intimacy. However, it does have some drawbacks. It is near the railroad tracks with all-too-reliable 8 and 9 p.m. trains with their lonesome whistles more apt for bluegrass. Lots of hard surfaces, curved ceilings, and empty seating combine to produce mudding of textures during piano recitals. Perhaps tapestries or moveable acoustical curtains would help.