Skillful piano playing, insight at Cliburn at the Modern event

FORT WORTH -- Many of us approach concerts of new classical music with trepidation.

Will we know the composers? Will we like the music? Will we understand it?

Well, more of us should attend new-music concerts like the one starring pianist Ursula Oppens on Saturday afternoon at the Modern Art Museum. Oppens not only skillfully played solo piano pieces by living American composers William Bolcom, Tobias Picker, John Corigliano and Elliott Carter but also talked about the music with some easygoing prompting by moderator Shields-Collins Bray. The performance was part of the Cliburn at the Modern series.

Oppens is an American pianist who has made her career championing new piano music. She's friends with the composers; many of the pieces she played were written for her.

An example of how her insights shaped listening occurred after her opening Graceful Ghost Rag by Bolcom, a lilting take on traditional ragtime. I complained to myself that Oppens' playing didn't "swing," didn't have enough jazzy swagger.

Well, Oppens said Bolcom wanted it played straight. Who's to argue with the composer? That kind of direct insight informed every piece on the program.

Bolcom's Ballade was dense and angry-sounding. Oppens said it was the composer's response to the Iraq war. Parchment by Julius Hemphill, a jazz saxophonist and Fort Worth native who died in 1995, echoed the lazy pulse and wild flights of the blues.

Picker's First Nocturne for Ursula was smooth and tonally reassuring; his First Etude for Ursula featured bouncy bursts and ribbony phrases unwinding in cool, logical counterpoint.

Corigliano's Winging It, to be published in May and based on the composer's notated improvisations, was jangly, then hymnlike, then percolating. Corigliano's Fantasy on an Ostinato is based on the funeral march Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; its recurring rhythm was present throughout intense, hypnotic permutations.

Carter's Intermittences was like an abstract expressionist painting -- dollops and drizzles of notes; the energy and motion of Catenaires felt like raindrops on river rapids. Oppens admirably played this challenging program. More importantly, she made the music matter and brought the audience members closer to what they heard.