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Dawn Upshaw Is Back, in Style

"I listened often to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of Bach's cantata Ich habe genug (I Have Enough), especially the aria Schlummert ein (Fall Asleep). It happens to be a glorious piece, but it's also an extraordinary performance -- one that is blessed, and that blesses us."

-- Dawn Upshaw, on music that inspired her as she battled breast cancer (Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 11)
Dawn Upshaw gave a sold-out recital on Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, as part of the Fortas Chamber Music series. The celebrated American soprano, who was diagnosed with breast cancer late in 2006, has recovered from aggressive treatment and returned to performing. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant this past fall, Upshaw is beloved by listeners for her radiant voice and intensely dramatic style of singing. Addressing the audience after her first piece, Upshaw explained that her recital program had no overarching theme: the songs were selected, about one year ago, because they were "what I would like to sing after chemotherapy." The capacity crowd in the Terrace Theater, who could not refrain from applauding after each and every song (ignoring the clear divisions implied in the program), was clearly delighted that she was able to sing them.

Much of the program was suffused with simplicity (Foster's parlor song Beautiful Child of Song and Ives's Two Little Flowers), whimsical humor (Debussy's La Flûte de Pan and Ravel's Le Cygne), and hammy playfulness (three of Bolcom's Cabaret Songs). As many of the songs came from Upshaw's burgeoning recital discography, the effect was a "Best of Dawn Upshaw" evening, with the added benefit of the sympathetic and vital presence of the singer herself. Indeed, many of the more serious songs on the program followed the theme of ecstatic awakening, putting me in my mind of how precious music is and, as a result, how fortunate we are to have Upshaw's voice in our ears. Upshaw chose to read the translation of Charles van Lerberghe's poem L'aube blanche, set by Fauré in his Chanson d'Eve:
And my soul, like a rose,
Trembling, languid all day long,
Awakens to the beauty in every thing,
And my heart to each thing's love.
Although she sings music from many periods, it is her championship of contemporary music, like the new song cycle by Dutilleux we heard her sing in 2006, that has been her greatest contribution. The undoubted high point of the recital came at the end of the first half, with two songs from Olivier Messiaen's exquisite Poèmes pour Mi, selections recorded on Upshaw's 2004 Voices of Light CD. A haunting, lovely performance of Le Collier (about the "necklace" of a lover's arms entwined around one's neck, poems by Messiaen himself) combined an opalescent melody from Upshaw in the refracted sunlight of harmony from the piano, played with impressive sensitivity by senior accompanist Gilbert Kalish.

Dawn Upshaw:
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Voices of Light

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Goethe Lieder

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Songs to Morpheus

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In a moment that can only be described as religious, Upshaw then offered up the Prière Exaucée, in which the soul cries out for grace in a howl of supplication. The hair on my arms literally stood on end as Upshaw sang, as she surely thought as she emerged from her fight with cancer, "Ring out, my heart! / Joy has returned." The contemplation of the dreadful possibility of death seems to have been behind the intense emotion in Upshaw's performance, in a second-half German set, of Mignon's Kennst du das Land, too. Pianist Gilbert Kalish was a consummate accompanist, flustered only once when a page-turning incident forced him to restart Ravel's Le Cygne. His solo contributions, the Alcotts movement from Ives's Concord Sonata and the op. 119/1 intermezzo by Brahms, were notable more for their tender introspection than forceful pianism.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Upshaw's Freshly Picked Bouquet Of Favorites (Washington Post, January 25)
What has happened to Upshaw's voice after chemotherapy? It is hard to say with certainty because, although it was not announced, she may be recovering from a cold caught in the Great White North, where she recently inaugurated her tenure as artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The lower range seemed enriched and the high occasionally strained, with some intonation issues creeping in here and there and some raspiness in a few crucial spots. Her breath support may also have been affected, but if anything the joy and intensity of her singing have only increased, as has her disarming and informal way with audiences. Her two encores, Schubert's Im Frühling and Ives's Memories, reinforced another major theme of this supposedly themeless recital: the ecstatic reverie that song can inspire, not only in the listener but in the singer. Let us all give thanks for our own prière exaucée: Dawn Upshaw est revenue.

The next concert in the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music series features violinist Barnabàs Kelemen and pianist Shai Wosner (February 4, 7:30 pm) in the Terrace Theater. They will play violin sonatas by Mozart, Bartók, Debussy, and Brahms.

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