in: Reviews

October 24, 2011

Three-Dimensional Performance From Upshaw

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Many singers who offer vocal recitals have beautiful, well trained voices, musical intelligence, and an expressive approach to their art that makes them a pleasure to hear. They take the stage, place themselves in the bend of the piano, and proceed to stand and deliver. On the surface, this description could apply to Dawn Upshaw, one of our leading recitalists, who appeared at Tufts University on October 20 with her long-time collaborator Gilbert Kalish.

I say “on the surface,” because something unique happens at an Upshaw recital. If a standard fine recital is like walking down the street wearing an eye patch, so that everything appears in two dimensions, hearing a Dawn Upshaw recital is akin to removing the patch, so that suddenly everything appears with an additional dimension of depth. Dawn Upshaw sings three-dimensional recitals. Every single song not only has its own musical life but also generates a personality in the singer so vivid that one can feel a back-story, the entire context of the fusion of poetry and music that make up the song.

She does this not by “acting” overtly — something that has generally been frowned on by the arbiters of taste in vocal recitals (though she is freer in this respect than many singers) — but by somehow becoming, in stance, facial expression, spectacularly clear diction, and vocal color — the personage represented in the song. In some cases, such as the songs in Musorgsky’s The Nursery, there are explicit personalities: here, the small child and his nurse, the one slightly misbehaving, the other demanding that he sit in the corner for a time. Listeners without the slightest command of Russian can immediately understand the child’s excuse for a messy room (“The cat did it…”) or coming up with a complete list of relatives to bless in his bedtime prayers, to show his relief when the nurse reminds him of the one person he forgot — himself.

Dawn Upshaw is the first vocalist to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, given, I suspect, as much for her imaginative programs as for her regular performance of contemporary composers and her musical gifts. She is a leading exponent of Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho and has premiered works by many other recent composers of song as well as the old favorites of the German, French, Russian, and American repertory. Ruth Crawford Seeger has been gone a half century, but only recently have her songs begun to make its way consistently back into the repertory, and Dawn Upshaw had been one of its leading exponents (along with Lucy Shelton). She is also one of the “troika” that serves in the artistic directorship of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, surely a unique accomplishment for a singer.

Upshaw’s recital offered a wide-ranging collection of songs in groups devoted to Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, the aforementioned Mussorgsky, Debussy, Schumann, and William Bolcom. Beginning and ending with the American set closed a circle, since the wide-ranging influences in Ives found a latter-day echo in three of Bolcom’s cabaret songs. Ending the first half with Mussorgsky and opening the second with Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis is another very intelligent link between two composers who are rarely heard in the same context, though Debussy learned so much about setting prose texts in a naturalistic way from his Russian predecessor.

Gilbert Kalish, Upshaw’s superb collaborator, deserves far more than the normal comments offered about the accompanist in a recital. I doubt if there is any pianist in the world who has involved himself in the full repertory of his instrument as thoroughly as Kalish, whom I have heard in solo recitals and concerto performances (the standard thing done by most pianists, though his repertory often extends far beyond the run-of-the-mill) to hundreds of chamber music performances of the widest possible repertory, and recital work with leading instrumentalists and singers for at least a half century. (I first encountered him in the 1960s on what was then called “educational television” in New York, performing a cycle of the Beethoven violin sonatas with Paul Zukofsky.) His program biography rightly highlights his thirty-six year collaboration with the late Jan DeGaetani, but his ongoing collaboration with Dawn Upshaw bids fair to match it in duration and significance.

Kalish performed a solo number in each half. After the Ives songs, he played the “Alcott” movement from Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, and between the Debussy and Schumann sets he offered late Brahms, the B-minor Intermezzo, Opus 119, No. 1. Here, as in his accompaniments to the songs, he demonstrated his wonderful range of touch. Few pianists can play as softly as he, and keep the tone and the flow moving. (On Thursday evening he complimented the piano especially on its responsiveness at the softer dynamics, so that he did not have to worry about whether the quietest tones would sound.) He is the only pianist I know who always puts the piano’s top all the way up (“full stick,” as they say) in a vocal recital, because his dynamic control allows him to get the accompaniment as soft as need be for the most restrained vocal passages, and to blossom to full force at the most energetic levels.

One final comment on the singing: the songs on this program gave Dawn Upshaw the opportunity to show her extraordinary mastery of the vocal color. In Crawford Seeger’s White Moon (a Carl Sandburg setting), she seemed to be whispering, and yet there was always a (very hushed) core of tone making the pitch clear while creating a unique mood. (One can all too easily imagine a performance going for the same effect that comes off as entirely pitch-less.) She can be a young woman, an old woman, happy or desolated, and everything in between, always with an apposite color, a purity and accuracy of pitch, and a through line that carries the listener along.

Following the formal program, they added two welcome encores: First Charles Ives’s Down East, a sustained number in which Ives embedded Lowell Mason’s Nearer my God to Thee, and Dawn Upshaw’s favorite Schubert song, Im Frühling, which rang with the sheer beauty of her voice and the sweetly bell-like arpeggios in Kalish’s playing in the second stanza — a perfect ending to an extraordinary recital.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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