Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

June 11, 2011

Dawn Upshaw with George Crumb (far right), Gilbert Kalish and members of red fish blue fish Photo: mine 2011

There is a history of particular artistic collaborations in the arts that can become synonymous with certain time periods or places. In the opera and vocal arts world, we have been watching one of those landmark pairings unfold between soprano Dawn Upshaw and stage director Peter Sellars. One, if not both, of these artists have had their hands in most of the important vocal music events of the last two decades. Sellars directed Upshaw in several important operatic stagings in the 1990s including Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Paris, and Messiaen’s St. Francois d’Assise in Salzburg. In the early 2000’s there were a number of world premiere works as well, including John Adam’s El Niño and Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin where he memorably talked her into lying on her back half-submerged on a flooded stage. Stirring images to be sure, and recent seasons have provided new outlets for their work together in a series of staged and semi-staged solo works and song cycles. Los Angeles has been lucky enough to see the two together in Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone and a semi-staged version of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente. So it was exciting to see Upshaw and Sellars together again in another new collaboration on Friday night at the 65th Ojai Music Festival. (the following two video clips feature Sellars and Upshaw working together in Salzburg in the late 1990s and more recently talking about their work together in Ojai.)

The work was George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook Vol. IV). Crumb was on hand for the performance, and the evening started in the most engaging of ways with a conversation between Sellars, Crumb, and pianist Gilbert Kalish who also performed that evening alongside percussion ensemble red fish blue fish. It was an interesting conversation and contrast between Sellars, one of the most politically inclined theater directors around and Crumb, one of the least politically-minded composers by his own description. Sellars gave Crumb several opportunities to talk about sociopolitical undertones in his Songbook series, but the composer demurred insisting that he prefers to let the music go where it takes him. Of course, hearing arch commentary in Crumb’s now multi-volume settings of over 70 American songs is tempting. As evidenced earlier this season on the Los Angeles Philharmonic stage, Crumb’s preservation of the lyrics and vocal melodies to songs such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Shenandoah” stands in high contrast to the thorny dark avant-garde arrangements that surround them (See the final video clip for a sample of the music performed by a college graduate ensemble.). The Winds of Destiny is true to form. The eight songs here are all from the civil war era including several spirituals such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and those mentioned previously. The score is for soprano and percussion alone, but as Crumb himself noted, the era of percussion as punctuation in a musical sentence is long gone, and the wide array of instruments sang out in numerous colorful ways the average listener might not expect from the description of a song cycle for soprano and percussion.

Given that most of the songs in this cycle are associated with a time of war and unrest, Sellars went for the clear contemporary parallels. Upshaw arrived on stage in desert fatigues and laid down to sleep on an elevated bed. Her character was a modern day American soldier returned from any one of America’s current ongoing military conflicts. She is now marked with the specter of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is filled with feverish twisted dreams and memories of the horrors she has seen in foreign lands. The cycle opened with a haunting “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” which set the tone for this very unsettled and sleepless night. Upshaw and the players were amplified and at turns she could sound both tortured and enlightened. She would sit on the edge of the bed, and then later stand in front of it with microphone in hand like some rock singer. Later the soldier would cradle her pillow as if it were an infant or drink mouthwash in an allusion to the drug problems common in one so troubled. I was most taken with the final visual, the soldier performing “Shenandoah,” perhaps one of the loveliest of all traditional American songs, with Crumb’s haunting, decaying musical setting as she punted with a pole on some imaginary river of the mind.

It was a stirring if somewhat grim performance. Upshaw sang with an urgency that wasn’t always about simply producing beautiful sound, although that was not an uncommon occurrence. Not all of the staging elements worked. Some of the falls Sellars had Upshaw execute as if in response to exploding bombs could look clumsy and comical. But overall, the emotional intensity of the performance outstripped its political agenda.

In a crafty move, Upshaw, who is this year’s musical director at the festival, and Sellars paired this performance with a highly contrasting but complementary one. The Sakhi ensemble alongside Ustad Farida Mahwash presented several ghazals, or folk songs and melodies from Afghanistan. Unlike the American songs that preceded them, these works concerned matters of love and spirituality. Instead of the angst and violence of peoples at war, these traditional songs stood in contrast as a reminder of those human attributes that persevere in even the worst of circumstances. It was a touching counterpoint in an evening of committed and heart-felt performances with much, much more than music making on its mind. And it was a great evening for revisiting the contributions of two long time collaborators.


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