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Upshaw, Morlot Weave Affecting Textures with BSO


Dawn Upshaw performs with conductor Ludovic Morlot (Photo by Hilary Scott)

Inspired by the culture of France and the Jewish diasporas, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began its concert of August 20 with Mozart’s dense and compact Symphony No. 31 in D (“Paris”) and proceeded through two moving works for soprano solo, Devrath Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, to Ravel’s coloristic concerto for orchestra, Ma Mere l’Oye (“Mother Goose Suite”, in the complete version). Dawn Upshaw’s modest stage manner belied her powerful emotionality and vocal virtuosity, bringing tears to the eyes and cheers to the heart in her knowing evocations of love and loss, and the charming intimacies of country life. Ludovic Morlot treated the stirring Mozart meters with a startling economy of movement, but embraced the subsequent romantic works with passionate spirit and expansive gesture.

The allegro first movement of the Mozart was sprung like a clock, sounding regular alarms of shooting octaves from the highest to the lowest strings (played with remarkable precision by the contrabass ensemble, led on this night by Lawrence Wolfe), but controlled both by brisk, steady rhythms and the fierce logic of a gorgeous counterpoint. Merlot’s subtle cues pulled out the inner lines; he emphasized the shape of the longer phrases by bringing up the volume of the two matched, mellow flugelhorns.

In the second movement, the 3/4 andante under Morlot’s baton became not so much a walking meter than a waltz. A striking series of four-measure exchanges unfolded between the strings and the woodwinds, telescoping to two- and then one-measure conversations. In but a few moments, the Shed was transformed to the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Keisuke Wakao’s oboe and Elizabeth Rowe’s flute sang together as one, swept away. When Mozart received this commission, what could the young fellow from Vienna have been thinking about the predilections of the French?

With its rapid piano strings and sudden forte bursts from the flugelhorns at the start of the third movement, Mozart, in 1778, anticipated Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony by 13 years. (Whether or not Papa Haydn was a thief is not the issue. What great composer stands alone?) Here, one could perceive the compositional sources of Mozart’s titanic influence: his ability to make melody magic of every short succession of notes, to propel rhythmic ambiguities through counterpoint, to subtly push inner lines into overlapping phrases of tensile strength, and to fearlessly assert complex rhythms, bold dynamics, and heady harmonic transitions.

When, at last, the splendidly synchronized arpeggios in the flugelhorns returned harmonic tonality convincingly to D major, there was delight, satisfaction, and even relief. Here was 250-year-old music brought to contemporary relevance by a sympathetic conductor in front of a splendid orchestra.

Dawn Upshaw appeared to a warm welcome in a flowing, turquoise jacket and matching scarf over slim, black pants. Her easy manner and lack of pretension captured beautifully the simple eloquence of the folk lyrics in the Canteloube songs. But her singing! This was world-class stuff, in range, color, timbre, and daring. Upshaw’s voice spans the soprano range with an ermine warmth. Without much ado, she adds depth and variety apposite to the lyrics: here an edge of laughter, there the verge of tears, and in the Sprechstimme that the Canteloube calls for, an unaffected, highly inflected human voice, and then a stunning emulation of a cuckoo’s cries. What force she adds for expressive nuance appears as the vocal equivalent of burnished wood, a timbre that falls somewhere between the bass clarinet and the oboe. If there were a perfect singer for the huge emotional range called for in the works of in this evening’s program, it was surely she.

The “Spinning Girl” in the first song, when asked for a kiss, gives two, and whirls through a vocal gyre from low E to high A. The repeated nonsense refrain, “Ti lirou . . . la la diri” was elevated by twinkles of flute and piccolo, capturing in form and fancy the dizzying delight of first love.

Who writes songs like “Run, Dog, Run!” these days? This little stunner would arguably have better served the climax of the 1995 movie, Babe, than the final movement of Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony. Absent the colossal impact, “Run, Dog, Run!” shimmered equally in animation and charm. Upshaw’s portrayal of the drama of a runaway cow, a shepherd, and a terrier, in swoops and yells and guttural barks, leapt over the rushing winds and dashing strings of Canteloube’s orchestration.

With such guidance, this doggie hardly needed a password to help him with his task. (Musicological trivia question: What was the password that Babe the pig used to herd the sheep into the corral, enabling him to win the grand prize of Scotland’s herding contest, not by being mean, but by asking nicely? Answer, cued to the piano arpeggios that herald that first, crashing organ chord, uttered gently: “Ba, Ram, You!” This was arguably the finest moment of French movie music since Wilhelmenia Fernandez sang Alfredo Catalani’s “Aria from ‘La Wally’” in the 1981 cult classic, Diva.)

The repeated comforting phrases of “Lullaby,” woven into exquisite, soft woodwind textures, evoked maternal frustration as well as love. Finally, the baby drifted off to sleep, after Upshaw observed tenderly, “It is coming at last, the lazy one! It is coming, here it is! And the baby is going to sleep… Ah!” After a song about putting a baby to bed, there came another about getting somebody special out of bed. Only after Pierre returned from multiple trips to the fair with Margaret’s “chemise, and the petticoat, and the laced bodice, and her kerchief, and her panties and her hat,” would she consider arising for the day. A delicious mix of harmony captured Pierre’s complex emotions. Circling around A-minor tonalities, his mood abruptly changed when Margaret at last exclaimed, “How pretty I look!” The song quickly resolved in a bright A-major cadence when, finally, “Margaret got out of bed!” Poor Pierre! Happy Pierre! Enabling Pierre!

“The Cuckoo” sang from a tree “in bloom, all red” to music that reflected a fabulous metaphor: “Certainly if all the cuckoos were to wear little bells, they would sound like five hundred trumpets.” Here the trumpets surely shone, with lots of chirpy staccatos, dissonant cackles, and at the end repeated calls of “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” Upshaw’s sense of humor came across especially pleasingly in her understatement of the over-the-top text.

The scene turned darker and more serious in the first of the Golijov songs, a lullaby, translated to and sung in the Yiddish of his forebears, with an unusual musical structure: soprano solo, soprano with orchestra, and orchestra solo. Upshaw began the song a cappella, totally exposed and precisely in tune, with the words, “Close your eyes and you shall go to that sweet land all dreamers know.” The subtle orchestral accompaniment lay down simple harmonies on a carpet of thick woodwind textures, with echoes of the vocal line sounding in the alto flute, contrabass clarinet, and violas. A romantic harmonic progression (C major, A major, E major, repeated again and again) underpinned this knowing expression of maternal comfort.

Then tension mounted with a keening melody, voiced in scalloping circles by the first violins, counterpoised by a rapid pizzicato passage in the contrabasses and bursts of linear lines in minor keys in the mid-range of the French horns. Their harsh tritones resolved to perfect fourths in a sudden, minor cadence. After the sweetness and peace of the lullaby came an augury of tragedy.

Yiddish changed to Spanish in the following affecting song, “Moon, Colorless.” Once again, Upshaw started a cappella, sounding a stunning, perfect E. Joined by strings in an expansive, rubato treatment of Rosalia de Castro’s poem, she asked the moon “If you know where Death has her dark mansion, tell her to take my body and soul together to a place where I won’t be remembered. …” Following a sweeping lament by Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, alternating pizzicato phrases between the cellos and the contrabasses underpinned a complex soprano melody that rose through Latin American and Klezmer inflections to a high Bb before resolving on the major third of a clear C-major chord. The sad ambiguity of human hopelessness in the face of a glowing heavenly body was resolved with optimism. Only through music can mixed feelings such as these be expressed, and shared, so deeply.

Two spare poems by Emily Dickinson closed this portion of the program. These, too, were songs of love and the transitory nature of human existence, embedding intimate feelings in soaring celestial images. These phrases could not have been better suited to Golijov’s and Upshaw’s artistry. His music was among his best: straightforward, simply and carefully worked, with clear voicings of the instruments (again with emphasis on texture, enriched by high contrabassoon and alto flute), accessible harmonies, and honest, heartfelt emotion. Her singing was thoughtful, nuanced, and moving.

Maestro Morlot’s “Mother Goose” focused on the kaleidoscopic qualities of Ravel’s orchestration. This is really a concerto for orchestra, and star turns were taken by oboe Keisuke Wakao, summoning rapid changes of mood and leading us up a staircase of romantic harmonies, and by piccolo Cynthia Myers, principal clarinet William Hudgins, and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar, who handed off a long melody that developed from a muscular, low Gb to the splendid lower register of Elizabeth Rowe’s flute. Lush, muted violins re-introduced Wakao’s oboe and gave emphasis to the honeyed quality of Robert Sheena’s English horn that built and ultimately directed all the woodwinds to a glorious section chorale.

After three statements of a four-pulse birdcall, played with charm by one of the percussionists alongside companionable chirping from the piccolo, the muted strings and oboe returned. Jessica Zhou’s harp, along with the celesta and xylophone gave sizzle and sparkle to the “Fairy Garden” movement, with echoes of its ethereal, pentatonic tonalities whispered by the alto flute and the piccolo. A powerful crescendo propagated shards of melody across the woodwinds and brass to a stirring restatement of the principal theme from the “Empress of the Pagoda” movement, punctuated resoundingly by horns and gong.

Your reviewer’s notes at this point in the Ravel include the phrase, “totally unlike listening to a recording, the shadings, the tonal variety!” This was one of those moments to rethink one’s listening habits. Really to appreciate music, there’s no substitute for listening to the real thing in live performance.  In this deeply satisfying evening, Ludovic Morlot, Dawn Upshaw, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave us a magisterial alternative to the CD, the MP3 or any media player.

Eli H. Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

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