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Ursula Oppens/JACK Quartet @ LPR

By Caleb Easterly

Ursula oppens

Ursula Oppens and the JACK Quartet gave an energetic performance at (Le) Poisson Rouge Sunday night, featuring music by Charles Wuorinen and Conlon Nancarrow. Oppens, a longtime champion of contemporary classical music for piano, displayed stunning technical virtuosity and touch on the first half of the concert, breathing vitality into the two solo piano pieces she played, both of which were written for her. The first, Wuorinen's Oros - a New York premiere - began with three forbidding notes in the lowest register of the piano. The piece, nearly 20 minutes long, hardly gave the audience a chance to breathe, with rapid runs up and down the piano. In a slower, more lyrical section, open fifths sounded strange and otherworldly, a welcome change of color. 

2 Canons for Ursula, by Nancarrow, employed an interesting compositional technique in each of the two canons: the left hand began the subject, the right hand joined in later at a faster tempo before, finally, they “met in the end,” as Oppens described it. In performance, this led to fascinating rhythmic play; her hands were often completely offset. Some sections pulled together, resulting in close rhythms that sounded like a piece by Steve Reich (think Piano Phase). Unfortuantely, Oppens seemed stiff throughout both of the canons, so they were lacking some groove.

JACK quartet

The JACK quartet is a brilliant group of young musicians, and they approached their pieces with lively ease. They first played Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3, a piece that, while conforming to a traditional 4-movement structure, threw out some fascinating colors. All four movements started the same: a subject would be introduced in one instrument, quickly followed by the other three. The most interesting movement was the second: an ethereal Adagio based entirely on harmonics. 

Oppens and JACK combined forces on Wuorinen’s difficult and aggressive Piano Quintet. While all of the performers played with dedication and feeling, there was too little communication for the piece to achieve its full potential. The balance was also off, with the quartet covering the piano for most of the piece. 

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