If you enter Dawn Upshaw’s name into your iPhone, or at least into my iPhone, the autocorrect changes it to Dawn Upside.
Those Apple folks know what they’re talking about. Just about every composer in the Western world, and probably those in the East as well, know the Upshaw Upside. The woman with the pearl voice has not only been a tireless champion of contemporary composers, but she makes them all sound as accessible as Schubert.
When I feel so connected to the music that I can imagine the evolution of the music and begin a dialogue with the composer about what we might do next, that’s the best.Dawn Upshaw
“It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it till people started asking me,” she said with a laugh. ''As an undergad, which was a long time ago, I didn’t know all that much about classical music. All my interest was in musical theater and more popular music, but I think my focus shifted once I was in my history classes for my music degree. My music world exploded with many more styles of song. But I didn’t lose interest in music of my own time … I think it has become even stronger purely because I find it interesting and gratifying and an obvious thing to do, to respond to what’s going on around me right now.”
No one has responded any better, certainly to Saariaho and Golijov. Saariaho's sensuous sound cape was featured earlier in the season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both are among the more dramatic composers working today, though in different veins.
Her introduction to Saariaho was the Salzburg premiere of "Château de l'Âme," based on Eastern texts, which she later recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. “I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s mesmerizing to me. I couldn’t articulate it then or maybe now, I just knew I was drawn to it and wanted to explore the music for how otherworly and dramatic it seemed — the way she writes for orchestras and singers, the way she builds very slowly and dramatically in terms of opera. I’m fascinated at the complexity but with its lack of anything superfluous. Her music still kind of boggles my mind.”
After listening, “I could definitely hear all the different kinds of music. Osvaldo has his own personal history and I felt connected to it in some deep way in terms of expression, the beauty of the line, the way he wrote for orchestra and voice, each piece led to the next one. There are a handful of composers [like Osvaldo] I’ve had such extended relations with — John Harbison Kaija, Donnacha Dennehy — I’m beginning to work on a third piece of his. When I feel so connected to the music that I can imagine the evolution of the music and begin a dialogue with the composer about what we might do next, that’s the best.”She has several recordings of Golijov’s music on DG and Nonesuch. She also has a number of sensational Nonesuch CDs centered on musical theater, traversing Vernon Duke and Rodgers and Hart, some with fellow Nonesuch All-Stars like Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin covering George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. While many a great singer, from Kiri Te Kanawa and Leontyne Price to Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, has butchered “Somewhere,” Upshaw’s version can bring you to your knees. (Nonesuch has done a poor job keeping many of the better titles in print, but most can be found on the Internet.)
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Upshaw is how seamlessly she goes from one musical idiom to the next. If you plug her name into Spotify, the music listening service, Rodgers and Hart flows into Golijov who flows into Purcell who flows into Messiaen and it’s always the same lustrous, unaffected voice.
Which goes back to the Upshaw Upside. While Upshaw makes it all seem effortless you know she’s put in the work that makes the musical choices seem intuitive, something that comes as much from her heart as her head.
“It makes me sad,” she said, “when a young student makes a quick judgment because it doesn’t connect readily. Part of what is so important to us at Bard with this project is for students to have the experience of communicating with the composer and also find something real in a new piece of music.”
It’s hard to imagine a better teacher than Upshaw. She makes it all real.
Ed Siegel's Favorite Upshaw Recordings
- Barber, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," and other selections, Nonesuch
- "Leonard Bernstein's New York," with other singers, Nonesuch
- Canteloube, "Songs of the Auvergne", Erato
- Dennehy, "Grá agus Bás," Nonesuch
- Gershwin, "Standards & Gems," with other singers, Nonesuch
- Golijov, "Ayre," DG
- Gorecki, Symphony No. 3, Nonesuch
- Mahler, Symphony No. 4, London
- Saariaho, La Passion de Simone
- Sondheim, "Take Me To The World," and other selections on "I Wish It So," Nonesuch
- "Voices of Our Time," DVD, Many of the composers listed in the story, TDK
This program aired on April 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.