Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dawn Upshaw mesmerizes audience with intimate, pure artistry

A great artist can give a concert for a thousand people yet make it seem as if she is performing just for you. Such is the artistry of Dawn Upshaw, who appeared yesterday (Tuesday, March 3) evening at the Newmark Theatre in a concert sponsored by the Friends of Chamber Music. Upshaw showed an incredible ability to connect with the audience in spite of singing music that was relatively unknown. In a program that included works by Charles Ives, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, Osvaldo Golijov, and George Crumb, it would have been easy for Upshaw to just park and bark – make some beautiful tones and take some bows. But she expressed the music not just with her voice but with every gesture, facial expression, and the way she stood. And the total effect was amazing because Upshaw did all of this in a hall that is very dry (no reverberation whatsoever) and in which it is difficult to create a warm tone (the Newmark has lots of carpeting and was made for plays rather than for music).

Upshaw, and her accompanist Gilbert Kalish, drew the audience into an impressionist soundscape that began with a selection of songs by Ives. This selection transitioned from songs that had a more traditional, harmonic sound (like “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and “Two little flowers”) to some that were somewhat dissonant yet intimate (like “Rather Sad” and “Tom Sails Away”). Kalish supported each piece perfectly with a subtle touch that always added to the words and the atmosphere.

With the aide of a microphone, Kalish mentioned that Ives wrote 140 songs and had a fierce independent streak. His remarks served as an introduction to “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’s “Concord Sonata.” Kalish used a light touch to evoke the parlor room and everyday atmosphere of the Alcott home in his playing of this gem.

Next, Upshaw sang a several songs by French composers, and since the house lights were turned almost all the way down, it was impossible to follow the translation. Yet, that didn’t matter at all, because Upshaw has a way of drawing you into the world of the music that she sings. I think that in both of the Messiaen’s pieces, “Le collier” (“The necklace”) and “Prière exaucée” (“Fulfilled prayer”), she pulled some high notes out of no where and then expanded on them in an exquisite way that was absolutely thrilling.

After intermission, Kalish performed a movement from Abel Decaux’s “Clairs de lune.” Kalish’s light touch on the keyboard nicely matched the slow-moving sounds of this piece, making it easy to imagine a moon hanging over a cloudless night or another nighttime tableau.

As a preface to the next piece, Golijov’s “Lúa Descorlorida” (“Moon, Colorless”), Upshaw explained that Golijov wrote it for Kalish and her and that it is the piece that she has performed the most often at her concerts. Although the text of the music is sad, telling about a woman who wants to be removed from the earth, the music has an improvised feel and is not a downer. Upshaw really captured the full range of emotion in this song, and, for me, it was the highlight of the evening.

The program closed with the six songs from Crumb’s “Apparition.” For this music, the piano top was removed so that Kalish could strum and pluck the piano strings and rap the inside of the piano with his knuckles. Some of the text required Upshaw to use a Sprechstimme (speaking voice) and at other times she sang non-sense syllables. There was real text to be sung also, but it seemed secondary. The songs dealt with silence and death and serious matters, and the music was sort of other-worldly.

The audience soaked up this unusual piece and responded with long-lasting applause. Kalish and Upshaw returned to sing two encores. Both were William Bolcom cabaret songs: “Watin” and “Black Max,” and the latter really lightened up the evening and put everyone in a good mood for the journey home.

No comments: