Dawn Upshaw presents colorful program at Longy School

April 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

By David Wright

Dawn Upshaw performed Tuesday night at the Longy School of Music at Bard College.

Here’s a bulletin: The singers that Dawn Upshaw coaches tend to sing like her.

Tuesday night at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, the much-admired American soprano presented young artists from the Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program, a two-year master-of-music degree that she conceived and now oversees.

Upshaw also favored the audience by performing two brief sets of songs with Bard faculty pianist Kayo Iwama.

The composers on the program, titled “First Songs,” were mostly young and mostly American, including several Bard undergraduates.

In such circumstances, why would one expect to hear voices modeled on Tebaldi or Fischer-Dieskau? Still, it was amusing to hear one singer after another vocalize with that clear, frank, forward-placed, text-oriented style that has been an Upshaw hallmark these many years.

America’s girl-next-door soprano turned that deceptively simple mode of production into a classical instrument of unsuspected depth and power. Even though we’re familiar witj her by now, she still has the ability to surprise.

In less-experienced hands (and throats), however, the Upshaw style can devolve into a kind of Broadway mode of expression—articulate and pleasing, but a little short on breath support and the expressive power it produces.

For example, when tenor Barrett Radziun sang Morning Innocent, a tender little song by Aaron Jay Kernis, it felt like a nicely-done bit of Bernstein or Sondheim, but one missed the colors that a more classical vocal style would have brought to it.

The Kernis song, by the way, was composed for Upshaw, as were several other items on the program. Passing her own new repertoire on to younger artists appears to be yet another way this soprano fosters the music of our time.

In another Upshaw-inspired song, Cinder by James Primosch, soprano Kameryn Leung made something of a mannerism (also Upshaw-inspired?) of attacking a long note in piercing straight tone, then softening it with vibrato. She then collaborated effectively, however, with soprano Elizabeth Cohen and tenor Radziun in the challenging, twisty a cappella harmonies of To Hold by Andrés Martínez de Velasco.

Other ensembles also provided memorable moments, as when sopranos Marie Marquis and Devony Smith and mezzo-sopranos Kimberly Feltkamp and Abigail Levis blended sensuous a cappella harmonies in Encounter, Daniela DeMatos’s setting of her own text, a sort of erotic Biblical dream that mashed up Psalm 23 with the Burning Bush and the Song of Solomon.

Less sexy and theological, but an arresting love story nonetheless, was the folk song “Barbara Allen” as dramatically re-imagined by Casey Hale in True Lover’s Knot. Sopranos Angela Carducci and Jacquelyn Stucker and tenors Vincent Festa and Hyunhak Kim expressively enacted the tale of “Barbry” and William, pining away for love of each other, but united in death.

The most intriguing ensembles of the night were the ethnic-colored selections from The Book of Ingaaric Songs for Two Faces by Tamzin Elliott, rendered by sopranos Levis and Sara Lemesh, the latter having just sung this composer’s plaintive Ingaaric song Sveitaar, sveimen var Kvieoinen: “Koorwei, Koorwei.”

The program book lacked translations of the songs or any information about the little-known Ingaaric culture, but the composer helpfully came onstage and recited the songs’ texts with deep feeling. It was not heard to tell, even without knowing the exact words, that these poems celebrated deeds of heroes and lovers, and the beauty of the northern forests.

And hearing the unaccompanied duets, with their gentle embellishments, vibrant unisons, and flirtatious canons, one didn’t need a degree in ethnomusicology to place the area of Ingaaric culture just east of Lapland, where watchmen join in song over great distances and herders sing their reindeer to sleep.

Of course, a reviewer must confirm these things, and research after the event revealed something surprising: The Ingaaric culture is unknown to anthropologists, and its actual geographic location is not the Arctic Circle but wherever composer Elliott happens to be.

Her elaborate leg-pull was not only the coup of the night, but produced some of its most novel and expressive music. Elliott, who is on this or that side of her 21st birthday, studies both composition and poetry at Bard, and displayed a flair for both on Tuesday night, along with a touch of P.T. Barnum.

It would have been interesting if Upshaw had taken up one or more of the students’ compositions herself, but in her two groups she turned instead to composers of long association: Laura Schwendinger’s in Just- spring and selections from Juliana Hall’s Night Dances to open the first half, and George Tsontakis’s Love’s Philosophy and three songs from Simple Daylight by John Harbison to end the evening.

In any case, Upshaw showed all present how it really is done, from weaving sweet dreams in silvery tones to pulling out all vocal stops in the Harbison. With no danger of covering the powerful singer, pianist Iwama attacked Harbison’s jangling dissonances with gusto, and the evening ended on a dramatic note.

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