There is an intimacy and vulnerability in any vocal recital: a singer, a piano, and a crowded hall. Each time I experience a jolt – anxiety for the exposed artist facing the masses, mingled with anticipated pleasure. Dawn Upshaw’s recital in Jordan Hall on April 29, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, allied all anxieties and offered a plentitude of pleasures. Joined on stage by Stephen Prutsman, piano, Upshaw presented a beautiful array of well known and lesser-known songs from a variety of traditions.
The songs were ordered harmonically and thematically, each half of the concert presented as a set. By combining songs in the same or relative key, progressing by intervals with some thematic pairings tossed in, the recital brought out continuities and contrasts across time and national traditions. The opening Purcell Music for a while led to Schubert’s Im Frühling, followed by Fauré’s “L’aube blanche” from La chanson d’Eve, Schumann’s Die Lotosblume, then Dowland’s Come again, sweet love doth now invite. The opening songs stress the power of music to allay cares and assuage nostalgia, to express manifold loves in diverse musical idioms. In the first half there was a recurring theme of melancholy — yet set lovingly to music – leavened with rich and powerful moments of contentment. The first half ended with Schubert, Rastlose Liebe. Does this song of fickle love serve Upshaw as an anthem of sorts, attesting to her own love of such wide-ranging music?
The second half offered more songs on the theme of love and included some lesser-known gems which I greatly appreciated hearing: Warlock, Sleep (set to words by John Fletcher penned some three centuries earlier); Golijov, Lúa descolorida; and Bolcom, Waitin’ (a beautifully jazzy and gospel-inflected song that, as performed, inspired intense longing). There was also a very playful reading of Weill, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, including flirting with the pianist and trying to get frisky with him, all to great comic effect. (The full program can be seen here with the list and order of songs.) One way to summarize the ordering of music is to note the return to the Baroque throughout the recital, circling back throughout the program as chronologies of music history rolled backwards and forwards in waves.
Thematic pairings of note include Debussy, “La chevelure” from Chanson de Bilitis, followed by Messiaen, “Le collier” from Poème pour Mi: two love songs about a necklace, yet radically different in musical style and idiom. Similarly, Seeger, White Moon, followed by Korngold, “Mond, so gehst du wieder auf” from Lieder des Abschieds: roughly contemporaneous composers writing songs about the moon – and yet there the similarities end, with Seeger penning a more modern work, serious music to Ogden Nash’s words, and Korngold offering a more immediately accessible song, the profundity of the whole insinuating itself subtly upon the ears of the listener. These orderings made familiar songs fresh anew.
Given this variety of song written in many different styles across centuries, each song still sounded unique. Upshaw sang Purcell and Dowland with a simplicity and purity that allowed her voice to shine; for Bartók, Eddig való dolgom (a setting of a traditional text) as for the lieder, her voice seemed fuller, with more vibrato and projection, matching the demands of the music. The modern pieces demonstrated a musician magisterially singing difficult works with grace and ease. The show tunes were by turns lush and playful. From one piece to the next Upshaw seamlessly shifted vocal style and presentation. She sang beautifully with wonderful articulation – precise, carefully placed consonants, wide, open vowels – in all selections. My one issue was with her pronunciation, notably in French, perhaps also Russian (although there I am no expert): these songs, to my ears, sounded overly American, overly broad and bright. I would have appreciated a pronunciation closer to the spoken language. Prutsman proved the perfect accompanist in this recital, attuned to Upshaw and himself a master of the several styles programmed. I did find Prutsman’s flourishes and arabesques with his hands as he removed his fingers from the keys at various points to be distracting: did I hear vibrato because of his shaking fingers, pulsing notes on account of his aerial strummings above the keyboard, or just imagine them? These are, I freely admit, but cavils which hardly diminish a truly wonderful recital.
On a different note in closing, this season marks Marty Jones’s twenty-fifth and last season working with the Celebrity Series of Boston, fifteen of them as its president and executive director. She announced that this recital was in some ways her own swan song. Thanks to her efforts, we have all found pleasure and enlightenment in the copious offerings of Celebrity Series of Boston. Let us hope future seasons continue to offer us such a treasury of delights, continuing and expanding on Marty’s work and vision.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.