Fantasy: Ursula Oppens (et al) Play the World Premieres of Five Major Works by Laura Kaminsky


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Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).

This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.

While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.

Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.

Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.

The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.

The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.

The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.

It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.

Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.

Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Santa Barbara


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Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)

The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th.  The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present.  Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)

This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series.  Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.

A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.

The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars.  The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time.  It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.

The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ).  It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe.  It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score.  On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received.  It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case.  The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.

Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ).  Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier.  The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.

Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”.  As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist.  This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.

The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism.  Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound.  According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918).  Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves.  It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja).  And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more.  At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.

The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth.  The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.

The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4.  This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.

Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre.  György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982).  Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.

The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert.  This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.)  It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation.  The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.