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Friday, April 4, 2008 | “In the eighteenth century the piano sang. In the nineteenth it danced. The twentieth century liked to use the piano as an assault weapon.” Critic Bernard Holland wasn’t thinking about Jerry Lee Lewis when he wrote this in a review of new piano music in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago.

Ursula Oppens’ answer to Holland was uncompromising. “That’s such a silly generalization,” she said in a phone interview from her home in New York.

Oppens has been called the “queen” of modern piano performance, relentlessly integrating new music into concert programming. She can play a mean Beethoven concerto and commission dozens of works from living composers.

On Sunday evening, Oppens perform contemporary music for the closing concert of the Athenaeum’s chamber music series. Most of the pieces were written for her, and one of them will have its West Coast premiere here.

Although the works on the program are as diverse as the century we live in, the composers share some commonalities. “All of them are primarily pianists. One thread in the program is that they are all are interested in piano virtuosity,” Oppens said.

The pieces on the program use the instrument in a conventional way. None of the works require modern techniques like plucking the strings or hitting the keyboard with a fist or a forearm (the piano as assault weapon?).

All the composers are living Americans; four of the five are exactly 70, while Elliott Carter will turn 100 later this year. Oppens said she designed the program in part because so many of America’s important composers were born in the same year, 1938.

Oppens ventured one theory for this coincidence. The composers came of age at a time when so many revolutionary artists like Stravinsky and Hindemith arrived from Europe, and the Americans grew up in an environment of exciting musical possibilities.

Carter, for instance, counted Charles Ives as a mentor and was listening to or hanging out with composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Francois Poulenc, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber.

As Alex Ross points out in his new book on twentieth century music, “The Rest is Noise,” this was also a time when pop and art music were closer than ever before, closer than they have been since.

Churning musical styles and attitudes help explain the broad range of modern compositions. Charles Wuorinen is known for his highly complex, structured and dense works. “Blue Bamboula,” which Oppens will play, is all play, however.

When Oppens commissioned “Blue Bamboula” from Wuorinen she asked him to sustain the spirit of his other two “Bamboula” works — “Bamboula Squared,” for computer-generated tape and orchestra; and “Bamboula Beach,” with Cuban themes.

“Blue Bamboula,” has a jaunty rhythm and energy that reflects its lineage, namely the Afro-Caribbean dance and the drum of that name. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, one of America’s earliest composers, also wrote a piece titled “Bamboula.” A Creole living before the Civil War, Gottschalk was inspired by slave dances he watched on the streets of New Orleans.

The two pieces by Joan Tower, each about five minutes long, are based on poems by John Ashberry. They are deceptively light-hearted. With “Holding A Daisy,” it’s easy to imagine a game of “He love me, he loves me not” as the petals drift away. The music intensifies as emotional uncertainty increases and then dissipates as the lover is left with a question. “Or Like a … an Engine” races with hard-driving energy through scales to a Chopin etude.

William Bolcom is a prolific writer of everything from pop and cabaret songs to opera. The 2004 recording of his “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” in which Bolcom set William Blake’s 46 poems to music, picked up four Grammys.

For Oppens, he has written “Ballad,” the premiere for the concert. Dark and somewhat atonal, it is atypical of Bolcom’s lighter short works. When Oppens asked Bolcom about its mood, the composer answered that the war in Iraq had been affecting him.

In “Night Fantasies,” Elliott Carter takes the listener into that slippery place between wakefulness and sleep, when you are just drifting away or tossing and turning. The 24-minute piece starts quietly, goes through a period of turbulence, then ends quietly.

Oppens said that Robert Schumann’s Romantic writing influenced the piece’s shifting moods. “It’s the most complicated piano work, most difficult work. It’s a great piece. It goes through many worlds,”she said.

The program ends with a work that will touch working parents. Oppens said that “Mayn Yingele” (“My Little Boy”) was a present for her from Frederic Rzewski who took inspiration for it from a nineteenth-century poem.

In the poem, an immigrant comes home from the sweatshop where he works to find his son asleep. Standing over the boy, the father grieves because his long hours keep him from his son. The father kisses the boy who wakes up just long enough to see him then fall asleep again. “Depressed and embittered, I think to myself:/One day, when you awake, my child, you will not find me/Anymore.”

In just 13 minutes, Rzewski takes the listener through the poem’s collected feelings: love, tenderness, sadness, loneliness, exhaustion, and finally, anger. In its theme and its music, this is the most audience-friendly piece on the program, Oppens said.

Although UCSD is internationally recognized for its avant garde music, San Diego’s music patrons have been tepid in their response. Oppens, however, has chosen this program carefully to offer a rich plate of modern goodies.

Rzewski made room in “Mayn Yingele” for an extended improvisational cadenza. We won’t know what that sound like until we set foot in the Athenaeum on Sunday.

But then, that’s what Oppens said we should expect in any concert of contemporary music. “There’s not a single style of new music. If you go to a concert, you have no idea of what it’s going to sound like, and that’s very exciting.”

CONCERT INFORMATION

Ursula Oppens plays new music, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Apr. 6, The Athenaeum, La Jolla. Tickets $30,$35, at 858-454-5872. (Oppens will repeat the program on Apr. 8 at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles.)

MORE: Elsewhere on the music spectrum, La Jolla Music Society will present Europa Galante dropping in from Italy to perform a program of Baroque music, 8 p.m.,Saturday, Apr. 5, MCASD’s Sherwood Auditorium, La Jolla. Tickets $55, $75. Order on line www.ljms.org or at 858.459.3728. Also, San Diego’s Camarada presents music from Italy including Vivaldi, Boccherini and Rossini, 7:30 p.m., Friday, Apr. 4, 2008, St. Paul’s Cathedral, SanDiego and 6 p.m., Sunday, Apr. 13, Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla. Tickets $15, $25. www.camarada.org or 619- 231-3702.

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