Dawn Upshaw to perform Golijov songs with Cleveland Orchestra

By David Fleshler

Soprano Dawn Upshaw performs Friday and Saturday with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center in Miami.

She grew up listening to Joni Mitchell, not Maria Callas. She is as likely to be found in deep conversation with a composer in an Upper West Side coffee shop as on the opera stage. And she is the first singer to win a MacArthur “Genius” award, a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 that goes to the most promising people in a variety of fields.

The American soprano Dawn Upshaw, in other words, is not the typical singer. Upshaw, who will perform this weekend with the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami, made a stellar operatic career, becoming a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera with a particular gift for the difficult, delicate roles of Mozart. But the old stereotype of singers as the dimbulbs of the classical world (“She was a singer and had the brains of one,” H. L. Mencken wrote about Richard Wagner’s first wife.) seems particularly misplaced for Upshaw, whose restless, probing musical intelligence long ago led her off the honorable but well-trodden path of the traditional operatic soprano.

“If you know Dawn at all, she’s a fiercely intelligent person,” said the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, whose vocal work on the Irish potato famine, If he died, what then, was recently premiered by Upshaw with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “She’ll never ham anything up. It has to have a real integrity. Every single angle of the piece she turns over. I haven’t encountered that much with anyone else. ”

As a child in Park Forest, a southeast suburb of Chicago, in the 1960s and 70s, when her parents were active in the civil rights movement, Upshaw listened to the tunes of the folk revival that began in the mid-20th century. “Joni Mitchell was a huge hero of mine, really amazing lyrics, just poetry, and musically speaking too,” said Upshaw, 51, in a telephone interview from St. Paul. “My dad played guitar, and we sang as a family. They played Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary—that’s all the music I grew up on, and I really grew up thinking that an important role of music in one’s life was the power to change the world.”

As vocal student at Illinois Wesleyan University, in addition to the usual arias and lieder that form the basis of classical vocal repertoire, she studied contemporary music. “My voice teacher was throwing all kinds of music at me, including new music,” she said. “I didn’t realize that that was sort of unusual until I was in New York for grad school. It was a part of the whole picture for me, one part that I really enjoyed and that I wanted to continue. And I realized later that there were not all that many people interested in contemporary music who were classically trained.”

She made a name for herself in traditional operatic works, collecting accolades and Grammy awards, and used her fame and prestige to seek out composers, both well known and not. She participated in more than 25 world premieres, including John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby and John Adams’ oratorio El Niño. She premiered the Minnesota jazz composer Maria Schneider’s Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for which she holds the title of artistic partner. Her recording of the late Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, which has a prominent soprano part, has sold more than 1 million copies.

The MacArthur Foundation named her a fellow in 2007, giving her one of the famed “Genius” awards that went that year to a class of 24 that included a medieval historian, a nanotechnologist, a choreographer and a conservation biologist. In awarding her the grant, the foundation described her as “a classically trained vocalist who is stretching the boundaries of operatic and concert singing and enriching the landscape of contemporary music” and said she had “become a catalyst for the creation of numerous works through her passionate advocacy of contemporary composers, both established and emerging.”

She works closely with composers, not simply giving premieres but assisting in the creation. When Dennehy was about to begin working on a setting of poems by Yeats, the two met for hours in a Manhattan coffee shop. “We talked about what texts I might use for this piece, we read through some poetry, we talked about music in general,” Dennehy recalled, in a telephone interview from his office at Trinity College in Dublin. “We talked about her voice. She was very clear about where her voice is and she talked about different things in her voice that hadn’t been used much. One aspect of her voice that I’ve written quite a bit for is the fantastic low register, which she has.”

Among the most prominent of Upshaw’s creative collaborators is the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra will be performed by Upshaw and the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend. One of the most popular of the world’s living composers and an artist in the full vigor of his prime , Golijov composes eclectic music stamped by life experiences that include growing up in Argentina of Romanian-Jewish parents, studying for a few years in Israel and living now in the United States.

Upshaw was struck by one of his works for string quartet. “He knows how to create a mood and color in a very special, unique way,” she said. “So when I first heard his music, it danced, it seemed very alive and it touched me immediately.” She made contact with him through the Kronos Quartet in the late 1990s, and since then he has written several works for her. His music reflects the varied cultural strands of his background, and this is  particularly true of the work that will be performed this weekend at the Arsht Center.

The songs consist of a Yiddish lullaby, a setting of lines from two poems in English by Emily Dickinson and a song in the language of northwestern Spain called Gallego. “They’re all quite different from one another but they kind of create a world of their own together,” Upshaw said. “I really love singing them.”

The work in the Gallego language, composed to a text by the Galician poet Rosalía de Castro, she finds particularly moving. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful poem about a woman sort of pleading to the moon to first shed light and compassion on her,” she said. “She’s very troubled. But then she asks that the moon doesn’t even show its light. She doesn’t ultimately want to be seen. She wants to disappear. The woman is speaking to the moon through this song.”

Nicola Luisotti, music director of the San Francisco Opera, who will conduct these performances, said the Golijov songs are “three wonderful musical cameos” that are rich in musical colors. “The audience will be transported in a magic world where the life is another life and where the feelings are more important than the reality,” he wrote in an email.

At home in the suburbs north of New York City, Upshaw does not live the life of a diva. She draws carpool duty, taking her teenage son and a friend to school. She spends a couple of hours emailing and talking on the phone with managers, presenters and musicians about touring, repertoire and various projects. She practices about two hours a day, carefully warming up her vocal cords before working on whatever piece of music she’s planning to perform. After that comes lots of “transportation issues,” as she drives her son to band rehearsal (he plays electric bass), school, play, work and other extracurricular activities. She doesn’t watch much TV, although she recently discovered Six Feet Under, the HBO funeral home series, and watched all five seasons.

The MacArthur money sits in the bank. “I am still holding it,” she said. “I don’t actually feel real comfortable talking about what I’m going to do with the money because I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’ve had some ideas about maybe trying to create a production company or something to do with new music.”

Dawn Upshaw will perform Golijov’s Three Songs  with the Cleveland Orchestra March 2 and 3 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. Also on the program is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and Verdi’s Triumphal March and Ballet Music from the opera Aïdaarshtcenter.org, 305-949-6722

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One Response to “Dawn Upshaw to perform Golijov songs with Cleveland Orchestra”

  1. Posted Mar 01, 2012 at 10:31 am by Ira Wish

    I am going to the Saturday concert. Dawn Upshaw has a marvelous voice and The Cleveland Orchestra is the greatest in the world so for me this is as good as it gets!

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Mon Feb 27, 2012
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