Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Wonder Sandwich

May 21, 2007

Dawn Upshaw
Photo: H.W. Chiu /LAT 2007
If there is currently an American vocalist whose level of artistry rivals that of the late Ms. Hunt Lieberson, it is without a doubt Dawn Upshaw. To paraphrase, the famous lyric: She can take a nothing song, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. Luckily, she is almost never left with “nothing” songs considering her allegiances to today’s most important composers as was the case this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. She performed two song cycles with the assistance of last-minute replacement conductor Alexander Mickelthwate and the LA Philharmonic – Lukas Foss’ Time Cycle and Golijov’s Three Songs for Orchestra and Soprano. The Foss piece is a rather dark and exacting meditation on time, loss, and arguably time regained set to works by A.E. Houseman, W.H. Auden, and O Mensch! from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra. The piece was haunting and beautiful yet turned out to be but an appetizer of what was to come. The Golijov settings were devastatingly gorgeous and amounted to one of those transportive moments in live music when suddenly you are gone, just gone. Where, I don’t know, but I’ve still got chills over it. If Golijov’s forthcoming Met Opera commission features Upshaw and is a quarter this good, it will undoubtedly be a masterpiece.

That this wonderment was sandwiched between two orchestral dogs was a shame. The evening started with Barber’s silly Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra and despite the presence of Simon Preston was a complete waste of time. The evening ended with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which Mickelthwate conducted with a fussiness that bordered on irritating. The 20 minutes seemed endless, which is sad considering the beauty in this work.

Still, for forty glorious minutes Ms. Upshaw was in full flower. In fact, she is the new topic of the “On Top” segment which features my favorite recordings of hers. Here’s looking forward to her performances this year (at last) of Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone in London and Los Angeles later this year.

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