Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

How You Like Me Now?

March 24, 2010

Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw
Photo: mine 2010

I wish I could tell you that I was more excited about Tuesday’s recital from Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. But the truth is, despite glowing reviews of their Chopin and Schumann program at its other stops in both New York and San Francisco, I was somehow expecting more than what we got. The show was focused almost exclusively on Lieder of the familiar variety from Schumann, and the not so familiar variety from Chopin. In between were Chopin Mazurkas and Nocturnes played by Ax and a newly commissioned song cycle from Stephen Prutsman entitled Piano Lessons. Originally, the pair had planned to perform a new song cycle from Osvaldo Golijov in these performances, but the work was unfinished so the substitution was made. Prutsman’s five short songs are a setting of poetry by Billy Collins about a young student’s joys and frustrations as a piano student. It’s whimsical poetry paired with whimsical music and it could be saccharine at times. Not that it wasn’t well played, it just struck me as kind of slight.

Of course, that criticism could be leveled about all the music on the program at one time or another. The Chopin songs, which Upshaw preformed in Polish, are certainly rarities. I never felt they quite came together, though. I certainly love Upshaw, and her vocal performance was warm and involved. However, I couldn’t get the nagging sensation out of my mind that I'd rather be hearing someone else sing this particular material. Upshaw has given near-legendary performances here in L.A. of contemporary works from Kurtag, Adams, and Saariaho. And while both the Chopin and Schumann songs were beautifully sung, I wouldn’t say that this performance of them ranked among the most memorable I’ve heard. However, I was rather taken with her version of Schumann's Er ist's which she paired with Hugo Wolf's setting of the same text for an encore. What I was impressed most with was the communication between Upshaw and Ax throughout the performance. The balance of power between vocalist and accompanist in a recital is often tilted more in the singer’s favor. But Ax seemed more a full partner in this evening even when he was not playing the solo works. Ax will be around for the rest of the weekend and into next week for performances of the L.A. Philharmonic including more Chopin for those of you so inclined.

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