Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Creative new-music interpreter Ursula Oppens turns her attention to Laura Kaminsky

The high arts have recently been taken to task because new "product" sometimes fails to indicate how

Laura Kaminsky draws upon nature and human events.

engaged it is with present difficulties of consuming interest outside the arts. Does new art deserve a place in our current conversations if it follows self-contained agendas?

It's not easy to specify what responsibility creators or performers must shoulder in order to indicate that they, too,  furrow their brows about world issues before sending new material out into that world. It's a bonus when they can show that their extra-musical concerns are vital in shaping new works.

Fortunately for her ability to resonate with the Zeitgeist, composer Laura Kaminsky explicitly cites matters like climate change and social unrest as formative. This alone can't justify performers taking up her music, but it must help. 

The movements of nature, particularly water, can readily be given musical expression, sweeping before them the flow of human events as well. That's somewhat the procedure of "Alluvion," the piece commissioned for the current Classical Awards of the American Pianists Association. In a program note accompanying the APA's online content about the competition, Kaminsky writes this about "Alluvion": "I write a lot of music that comes from visual and nature imagery or political and social imagery. In a way, this piece has the turbulence of some of the climate changes that we are experiencing. But it also has some of the turbulence we are dealing with in the social/political landscape."

Ursula Oppens has long championed new music.

On a new disc from Cedille Records, a variety of Kaminsky music involving piano has been issued under the title "Fantasy: Oppens Plays Kaminsky." Anchoring this attractive program is the veteran new-music specialist Ursula Oppens.

The piece that lends its name to the disc title is most nearly comparable to "Alluvion," because it's also for piano solo. Unlike "Alluvion," "Fantasy" bears fewer of the hallmarks of a competition piece; that is, it takes its time making its points. It declines to enhance a contestant's weaponry.


It is also not brand-new (2007-2010), yet bears the stamp of Kaminsky's style in her more recent works: brooding and dashing by turns, it glories in the connectedness that the piano has evolved both vertically and horizontally over its three-century lifespan so far. 

"Fantasy" opens thoughtfully, pausing now and then as it gathers strength. It is anti-display to a degree. Early on, we hear a kind of relaxed counterpoint. This music is not out to prove anything. When repetition comes up, it's frankly designed to impress itself upon you, but never obsessively. There are toccata-like passages well into its 20-minute length; slow music that ensues uses the sustaining pedal lightly for controlled resonance. Touches of Schumann in his galloping mode come into play, as does a toying with abruptness reminiscent of the German composer, but not with his attention-deficit disguising.  

For a compact exhibition of Kaminsky's responses to 21st-century life, other listener tastes might be better addressed by "Reckoning: Five Miniatures for Piano Four Hands," with Oppens joined at the keyboard by Jerome Lowenthal. Ambivalence is embraced by such titles as "Majestic. Yet." and "Hurtling. Still," and the finale, "Forward. Yet." Even the punctuation hints at the way each quality addressed in these duets has its own emotional asterisk. The self-contained pieces acquire greater significance because of the set's astute organization: I was especially charmed by the progression represented by the third through fifth pieces: "Reverie," "Divided" and "Forward. Yet." With Goethe, Kaminsky seems to declare: "Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach!,  in meiner Brust" (Two souls reside in my breast). The balance given the original line by that central "ach!" is also the balance rapturously wrung out of Kaminsky's music.

The disc opens with the composer's Piano Quintet, in which Oppens is joined by the Cassatt String Quartet. The portentously titled "Anthem" gives us a first movement that initially evokes folk music, yielding to a busy, syncopated background framing a gradually assembled line of long notes.

Cassatt String Quartet collaborates with Oppens.

Its declarative solemnity is deepened in the second movement, "Lamentation, coming into light," another Kaminsky title advising the listener not to expect all of one thing. Until the movement's seraphic ending, the piano dominates, with the strings contributing an oddly affecting pathos on top of a piano part that has introduced itself at the outset deep in the bass. The mounting intensity is patiently developed, with the string quartet proclaiming definitively its essential contribution to the piano's argument. The finale, "Maelstrom, and..." makes out of the title's ellipsis the reality in auditory terms that there's more in a whirlpool than meets the eye. The partnership is impeccable.

Finally, Piano Concerto, which comes in at about the 20-minute length of the quintet and "Fantasy," has an explicit natural referent: sunlight on the waters of two rivers, the Neva in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Hudson, as seen from Kaminsky's studio window in the Bronx. The glints and sparkles evident to the eye are translated into orchestra sounds with an almost lavish flavoring of percussion, including wood blocks, gongs, and vibraphone. Every percussion instrument seems to have its essential voice in producing the cumulative effect. Though there is no quoting of previous music that I could tell,  there were passages suggestive of Mussorgsky's "Dawn on the Moskva River" (especially in the gradations of morning light on the water) and Smetana's "Moldau" (in a river's constant motion quickening now and then toward agitation).  Almost paradoxically, patterns seem to emerge in a context of lack of pattern — just as water and light in nature often appear to us in delightful self-contradiction. 

The Arizona State University Orchestra, conducted by Jeffery Meyer, acquits itself handsomely in accompanying the always adaptable, insightful playing of Oppens, who is a past master at making new music her own.  Kaminsky seems to have been well-served by this disc, as is the cause of contemporary music to which the pianist has contributed so much for several decades.

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