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Upshaw brings warm voice to Hawaii
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
In a different time and a different place, it might have been Dawn Upshaw’s voice rather than Helen’s face that launched a thousand ships. Writers certainly wax poetic trying to describe it.
With pianist Gilbert Kalish
Where: Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Museum of Art
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: honolulumuseum.org or 532-8700
“Her voice has a pure-toned radiance and earthen warmth, a certain empathic timbre, and often a palpable undertow of yearning,” the Boston Globe said of the acclaimed soprano.
“A ray of a light in a forest,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, which then quoted composer Osvaldo Golijov, one of many modern composers who have written specifically for Upshaw, as saying it is “the stillness in her sound” that makes her voice so distinctive.
Upshaw, 52, who will give a recital Saturday at the Doris Duke Theatre, would never utter such praise herself. Her reputation as a modest, unassuming individual was reinforced during our phone interview when, asked how she would describe her voice, she laughed and said, “I luckily don’t have to do that.”
Instead, she turned to what is really the essence of her craft, as she practices it. It’s an explanation that, not surprisingly, focuses on message rather than sound.
“The marriage of text and music has always been at the core of why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she said. “Obviously, I have very strong feelings about certain styles of music. I’m drawn to certain composers and definitely not drawn to others. … But in terms of my work, I’m always working from the point of text and expression of the words.”
That approach has served her well, leading to opera and classical performances at major theaters (about 300 appearances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera alone) and with the greatest opera stars of the past three decades; a repertoire consisting of everything from classics to pop to modern music; four Grammy Awards for her dozens of recordings, which include one of the most popular classical recordings in history; and universal praise for an uncommonly graceful musicality.
She has become particularly known for her interest in “new music,” inspiring today’s classical composers to write works that might someday become the period’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth (or perhaps the Ninth, with the vocals). Her passion earned her a 2007 MacArthur Fellowship. The “genius” prize is “not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.”
New music has been an interest of Upshaw’s since early in her singing career, when her college music teacher would bring her works by modern composers. Now, when working with some of those same composers, she is in the position of having input into the creation of the work.
“We have conversations about parts of my range that I feel maybe aren’t utilized as much as I wish they would,” she said. “Or parts of my range that I find more difficult to remain in, in terms of stamina.”
But she also has to respect that composers want to “write something that can be sung by lots of people. They want their work to live on in many others’ voices and other throats. … In fact, I have told composers, ‘This section is really hard for me, but there’ll be some other sopranos … who will be able to do this. And it’s beautiful and you should keep it.’”
The daughter of a minister who preached about social justice, Upshaw grew up near Chicago during the civil rights era, listening to the songs of artists such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and being impressed that “they were trying to change the world with music.”
She played oboe and sang in the choir in school, not getting much attention for her voice, but knew she wanted a career in music and that voice would likely be the key.
“I think I just felt really comfortable in my skin when I was singing,” she said.
Eventually the oboe playing succumbed to a scheduling conflict. “Plus, I was just starting to learn to make reeds,” she said with a laugh. “And I was not cut out for that.”
In college she had to start from scratch in terms of formal vocal training, but progressed and was accepted to the Met’s Young Artist program. That led to a run of highly praised classical performances, especially Mozart. But she remained devoted to new music.
It was a 1992 recording of Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” that propelled her fame beyond the classical music world. The Polish composer’s homage to the agony of war was composed 16 years earlier, and a recording had been produced featuring a powerful soprano.
Upshaw, hearing that recording, was dubious. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that,’ but I wasn’t using my imagination at all,” she said. “I kept listening to it and was so drawn to it, musically. I thought, ‘Wow, this is so moving,’ and I was kind of fascinated with it because it’s a rather simple musical idea, but the structure, the way he crafted it, is so powerful, so direct.”
Gorecki attended the recording session, sitting down at the piano beforehand and “sort of moaning through the piece, just playing the chords,” Upshaw said. “Of course I knew the piece meant so much to him. I learned more in that half-hour just listening to him moan through his piece than any amount of conversation with him.”
The recording, fueled by the passions inspired by the recent fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, would become an international hit. It topped classical charts in the U.S. for 2 1/2 years and is one of the most popular contemporary classical recordings in history.
For her recital, Upshaw will be joined by pianist Gilbert Kalish, a longtime collaborator and an acclaimed musician in his own right.
The program features “fun works” like William Bolcom’s “Cabaret Songs”; Ravel’s “Histoires Naturelles,” a group of songs based on fanciful poetry about animals; Bartok dances; and Ives. The last two are specialities of Kalish, and as might be expected, Upshaw was only too happy to deflect attention to someone else.
“I feel it’s a great honor to do Ives with Gilbert Kalish,” she said.