Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A new dawn for Upshaw

Pity me: until Sunday I'd never heard Dawn Upshaw (at left) sing anything live but the work of Osvaldo Golijov, whom I'm hardly crazy about. So the beauty of her luminous voice has always been slightly occluded for me by my complicated response to what that voice was singing. But in Sunday's Celebrity Series concert, the familiar strains of Golijov were heard only once (and in one of his best songs), while we were far more often regaled with melodies from the likes of Ives, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, and Bolcomb. And the results were pure bliss - a series of musical settings which set off seemingly every facet of Upshaw's radiant instrument. Indeed, despite her recent medical travails (from which she's emerged with a clean bill of health), she seems in better voice than ever.

Well, actually, the concert was almost pure bliss; the audience kind of spoiled its perfection. At one point Upshaw had to pause while an elderly patron adjusted her hearing aid, which had begun to beep. Then later, in the final encore, another patron was actively rude, and actually made a phone call during Upshaw's performance (see sidebar). Oh, well. No rest for the wicked, I suppose. Upshaw proved unflappable, however, and indeed was charming as she ad-libbed, sans attitude, while the rogue hearing aid was attended to.

Then it was back to Upshaw's achingly pure soprano, and, of course, her superb taste and questing musical open-mindedness. The concert began brilliantly, with haunting interpretations of several songs from Charles Ives - "Songs My Mother Taught Me," "Two little flowers (and dedicated to them)," "Down East" - that caught perfectly a wistfulness we rarely associate with this composer. (Upshaw threw in the hilarious "Very Pleasant" to remind us of his wit as well.)

She took a time-out to listen raptly to accompanist Gilbert Kalish's accomplished performance of the "Alcotts" movement from Ives's Second Piano Sonata, then returned with a set of French art-song, including a wonderful performance of Fauré's "Pale dawn" and an intense reading of Debussy's "The Hair." Her bid for exoticism in the same composer's "Pan's flute" was perhaps less successful - she's just too sweetly straightforward; but her interpretation of Ravel's "The swan" was just right - serenely ravishing, with a last fillip of bemused insight. The first half of the concert ended with another intense crescendo, as she limned all the ecstatic power of Messiaen's erotically-charged "Fulfilled prayer."

After intermission, the soprano touched base with Golijov (who was in the audience to cheer her on), but at least it was with one of his best songs, the devastating "Moon, colorless." Then a rather complex set-up began for the concert's premiere - from Michael Ward-Bergeman, who's in Golijov's circle - called "Treny (Laments)". The piece featured a small ensemble of piano, flute, cello, and "hyper-accordion" (played by the composer), which proved to be an accordion amplified and enhanced with deeper bass and various echoes and electronic effects. The intersection of electronica and live, unmediated performance seems to be one of Upshaw's interests, and this sample proved beguiling. Based on a 16th-century poem by Jan Kochanowski on the death of his daughter, its piercing lamentation suited the soprano well (her vibrato-free upper register can project a pure mournfulness sans any affectation); the only real problem with the piece is that it seems overlong, or perhaps more accurately, not satisfyingly structured for its given length.

The concert ended grandly, however, with a delightful set of songs from William Bolcomb (one of my favorite composers) that truly crossed art with pop, and floated lightly between witty, parodistic edge and floods of genuine feeling. "Waitin'" was spiritual yearning made simple, and pure; "The Song of Mad Max" both tickled and chilled; and as for the sweetly funny "Amor" - well, just make sure that before you die you hear this song at least once, and preferably performed by Upshaw. The crowd cried out for an encore, and she returned with another lively turn from Bolcom ("George") and the ever-welcome "Im Frühling" by Schubert, before sending everyone out into the fading day refreshed and renewed as after a long drink from a bright, pure spring.

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