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Dawn Upshaw and the ACO

by Suzanne Yanko

Melbourne audiences had been waiting for some time to hear internationally acclaimed singer Dawn Upshaw, and her appearance with the ACO was a triumph. Much of this was because of the choice of music, but that was matched by the musicianship on stage at Hamer Hall.


JOHN ADAMS Selections from John’s Book of Alleged Dances

GRIEG Holberg Suite

GRIEG Solveig’s Song

EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA Die Liebenden: Liebes Lied


ELGAR Introduction and Allegro

 There was a palpable excitement in the Hall as we waited for this concert to begin … it had been just over ten years since the singer Dawn Upshaw had had to cancel her Melbourne appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra with every singer’s nightmare: she had lost her voice.

This concert saw Upshaw at the other end of the spectrum; she was in great voice, supported superbly by the ACO and three jazz musicians: Scott Robinson, alto & bass clarinet, Jay Anderson double bass, and Frank Kimbrough, piano. Their fine performance, particularly of Maria Schneider’s work Winter Morning Walks, owed much to their tour of the USA in 2012, during which Upshaw and the ACO premiered and recorded a CD of the same name.

It’s perhaps surprising that this concert was not similarly given this evocative title, but instead was almost prosaically called Dawn Upshaw, Elgar and Grieg. (A little misleading, too, in that the Elgar was not for voice!). Perhaps the organisers thought the audience may have been scared off by any hint of contemporary American and Finnish works. They should have trusted our judgment better, as the works featured were accessible and exciting, and the vocal works perfect for Dawn Upshaw’s flexible voice.

Selections from John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances set the tone (which the composer himself described as “dry, droll and sardonic”). The Melbourne audience immediately took to the opening piece Judah to Ocean. A piece of “vehicular music”, its percussion beat and syncopated strings (mindful of a 1930s jazz style) were inspired by the streetcar from Adams’ cottage to the beach – but could as easily evoke the sound of the trams running right past the Hall we were in!

The work as a whole gave the ACO the opportunity to demonstrate its versatility, with the Piazolla-like Habanera showing Helena Rathbone to be a worthy soloist as well as director for the night. Toot Nipple (too abstruse to explain here) and Standchen were showpieces for the energetic cellos and tested the rhythmic sense of all players before the gently delivered Pavane: She’s So Fine hinted at a meeting place between pop and classical music.

The ACO having established that the 2014 season will be as good as, if not better than those before it, it only remained for the soloist to appear. For many (including the writer) it was their first experience of hearing Dawn Upshaw live although many would have a copy of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with Upshaw as soloist, in their collection.

Dawn Upshaw is a performer who enters the stage without fuss and almost immediately begins singing. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Die Liebenden: Liebes Lied
 translates simply as Love Song. There are many such songs in the repertoire, but the singer delivered this one with such warmth and feeling that it became exceptional.

The accompaniment by the ACO was respectful, and not always subdued. Upshaw’s voice had both the power to blend with the orchestra and a lovely vibrato on the top notes. Her clear diction and pronunciation made the unfamiliar Finnish more accessible and, above all, her obvious feeling for the music made it worthy of the last line: “O lovely song”.

Although they were high expectations of the singer from the next work Grieg’s Solveig’s Song, it was the orchestra that first attracted attention with depth from the cellos and bases and a lilting sound from the upper strings.

The work may be a standard for the voice but nothing was everyday about Upshaw’s delivery. Changes of pace in the work were well handled particularly the middle (“spinning wheel”) section. High notes were achieved with ease. As the song is relatively short it was good programming to continue with more Grieg in the shape of the Holberg suite.

Beginning with the restrained violins the work showed the togetherness of this ensemble and also served to highlight the interesting full orchestral sound from the 20 or so musicians. The second movement Sarabande was interesting for featuring the violas, their lyrical sound complemented by the violins. The Gavotte is the best known – and often standalone – part of the work. In the hands of the ACO it matched an emphatic beat with a delicacy of playing and beautiful dialogue between the violin and Christopher Moore’s viola. This partnership was a recurrent feature of the concert, carrying through to the next, very different work.

This was Winter Morning Walks by Maria Schneider to lyrics from Ted Kooser’s poem of the same name. Upshaw commissioned the song cycle from Schneider, and the work has a particular personal significance for her. Of all the works in the program this was the most jazz-like. The visiting musicians were equal partners with the ACO which itself seemed transformed into a particularly accomplished jazz band.

But it was Dawn Upshaw’s voice that was of course the prime interest as it moved with ease from the beautiful opening Winter Morning Walks, through fast percussive music, her voice strong against so much swirling atmospheric sound. Walking by Flashlight was a dreamy piece, with the bass important to the effect, while I Saw a Dust Devil This Morning saw Upshaw’s voice take on the sound of musical theatre. My Wife and I Walk the Cold Road demanded security in the lower register in contrast to higher notes and this was equally well delivered.

Spring the Sky Rippled with Geese had a piano accompaniment like raindrops. Pitch was a challenge brilliantly met by Upshaw and Rathbone’s violin was lyrical. Finally How Important It Must Be relied on the saxophone and lush orchestration for its calming jazz sound. Upshaw produced languorous singing as if just brushing the top of each note, crooning as the orchestra’s sound swelled. The lovely last phrase summed up the mood of the whole cycle.

Finally there was Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a dramatic conclusion to an extremely satisfying concert. Again one marveled at how such a small orchestra can produce such a full sound. But why should we be surprised? The solo singer herself was a powerhouse of emotionally charged musicality .





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