Flashback Friday - - Dawn Upshaw recital, 2015
Dawn Upshaw's birthday is on 7/17 - - she'll be 57. Here's a review of her BAM recital in 2015.
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I heard Dawn Upshaw in recital on 9/11/15, with Gilbert Kalish at the piano. It was at the Harvey theater, a medium-sized venue at BAM - - its lobby and theater are great for people watching. Young people, conservatory types, making the effort, full of false bravado. Portly middle-aged gay men in vests, looking at me and each other. Brawny young gay men in V-neck T-shirts, looking at the other gay men looking at them. Older people from the Upper West Side and Upper East Side - - they probably bought these Nonesuch albums on vinyl, in actual record stores. Maybe they even went into one of those listening booths, to hear a few choice cuts before making their purchase. I never had the opportunity to do this myself, but I seen it in the movies.
The program consisted of music from three classic Nonesuch recordings: veteran cellist Fred Sherry (and three younger people) playing the Elliott Carter sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord - - Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish doing Charles Ives - - and Upshaw, Kalish, and lots of other people doing George Crumb’s *Ancient Voices of Children*.
The Carter was such a charming piece - - elegant and delectable. Not words you typically associate with 12-tone music, but that’s Carter for you. It took a bit of effort at first to hear the harpsichord, since it just plain doesn’t make as much sound as the flute, oboe, or cello, but Carter generally wrote the piece in a way where the harpsichord doesn’t play at the same time as the other instruments, or plays in a way that lets you hear it. All four musicians played beautifully. I stayed for the Q and A after the concert, and Sherry said that he had recorded the piece for Nonesuch when he was 19! That was a number of years ago, if his snowy white hair is any indication. One last thing: the pianist was wearing a black suit, black shoes, and bright red socks. The socks annoyed me. This is a good choice if you’re going to a holiday party. This is not a good choice for playing Elliott Carter at BAM.
It took me a while to get used to the current Dawn Upshaw. I’m a big fan from way back - - this is the fourth time I’ve heard her in recital, the first time was in 1990, in Rockford, Illinois, the most recent time was in 2008 at Carnegie Hall. Her voice has gotten thicker and a little patchy here and there. And she’s always swooped a lot, but that’s officially gotten old and tired. It almost never adds anything to the music. And this is petty, but she’s also put on quite a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. None of this had any impact on her presence or deep seriousness and sincerity as an artist, but I feel I should mention it to give full reportage.
The spirit of the late great American mezzo soprano Jan DeGaetani hovered over the concert. She and Kalish recorded an album of Ives songs on Nonesuch, and they were the first to perform and record *Ancient Voices of Children*. DeGaetani became a sort of mentor to Upshaw, and she and Kalish performed and recorded together for years.
The Ives songs were fantastic. They did “Memories”, which is two songs stuck together - - A. Very Pleasant is silly and high energy. There’s a point where the singer is supposed to whistle the tune, and Upshaw said, “I can’t whistle, so Gil is going to whistle”, and he did. A big chuckle from the audience. The song ends with a splash, followed by a pause, and then goes right into B. Rather Sad. This transition has never worked for me, and I’ve probably heard this song in performance ten times. But Upshaw and Kalish nailed it, and it made me teary. I don’t know how they did it, but I think it has something to do with really believing in the transition and letting the pause happen without any fol-de-rol.
Other notable songs: “Like a Sick Eagle” was stunning, “The Cage” is always a hit. Kalish played a movement from the Ives Concord sonata in the middle of the set (Upshaw took a seat on the stage and listened). Maybe other pianists would play with greater clarity, but probably not with such a deep sense of the style.
I’ve had the Nonesuch recording of *Ancient Voices of Children* for over twenty years, and have never heard it live. This is a piece that, for me, only existed on that recording. It was thrilling to hear it live and hear how effective it is on the stage. It had the feeling of a ritual, it was totally captivating.
Crumb set a number of Lorca poems, in Spanish. The instrumentation is for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe (also playing harmonica at one point), mandolin (also musical saw), harp, piano (also toy piano), and three percussionists playing a whole battery of instruments (also singing). The piano writing is far from ordinary - - from what I could tell, the pianist never plays it the way one usually does, seated and playing the keys. The lid is off the piano, and (s)he plays the strings, and does various prepared piano effects, like putting an eraser between the strings so the sound goes THUMP.
The piece opens with Upshaw singing directly into the piano. Kalish was holding the pedal down, so her voice made a shimmer and echo against the strings. It was a spooky effect. Upshaw was full force in the opening, and throughout the piece. This is just the sort of thing she should be doing. She told a story at the Q and A: she was a student at Illinois Wesleyan, she thought she’d have a career in musical theatre. She went to a bookstore one day and they had a box of albums for $1.99. She sifted through them and came across an album with a beautiful butterfly on the cover. This was the Nonesuch recording of *Ancient Voices of Children*. She bought it, took it home, put it on the turntable, and, she said, her life was changed at that moment. She never knew music could sound like that, and knew that her singing would need to shift more in that direction.