May 1 , 2007
New York Times

“Dawn Upshaw’s Beautiful World of Song” by Anthony Tommasini

Richard Termine/The New York Times
Dawn Upshaw in this spring’s first Free for All at Town Hall concert.

“It’s great to be here,” the soprano Dawn Upshaw said on Sunday afternoon at the beginning of her recital at Town Hall. “I mean, really great,” she added, looking misty-eyed, to which the audience responded with a long round of applause and cheers.

Many people in the hall knew the deeper meaning of Ms. Upshaw’s comment. In the fall she was told she had early-stage breast cancer, forcing her to miss many months of work. This recital, with her good friend and longtime partner, the pianist Gilbert Kalish, was only her second, and her first in New York, since coming back from “treatments,” as she put it. She looked vibrant and hardy. Her voice sounded warm, full and lovely. If anything, there seemed to be an even richer dimension to Ms. Upshaw’s deeply communicative artistry.

She also said she was honored to be opening this spring’s Free for All at Town Hall series, now in its fifth season. She noted, beaming with pleasure, that earlier in the day Mr. Kalish had become a grandfather for the fourth time: his daughter, Judith, had given birth to a boy.

This recital surely had an additional resonance for Mr. Kalish. Ms. Upshaw was a devoted student of the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, with whom Mr. Kalish enjoyed an important 30-year partnership until Ms. DeGaetani’s death in 1989 — from cancer.

Ms. Upshaw explained that when she and Mr. Kalish planned this recital, they did not know how she would be feeling, so they decided upon a selection of favorite songs, interspersed with a couple of solo piano pieces. Ms. Upshaw cautioned the audience not to “look for meaning” in this “hodgepodge.” Actually, the meaning came from hearing music that mattered so much to the performers.

Their tender account of Stephen Collins Foster’s “Beautiful Child of Song” set the warm and personal tone for this late afternoon of music. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “White Moon,” with its pungent piano harmonies and wayward vocal line, was followed by Charles Ives’s wistfully lyrical “Two little flowers (and dedicated to them),” a tribute to his daughter and her young friend.

A group of French songs by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel culminated with two astounding songs from Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi.” In the ecstatically frenzied second song (“Fulfilled Prayer”), Ms. Upshaw sang with wild-eyed, almost frightening exuberance, as Mr. Kalish deftly dispatched the outbursts of astringent cluster chords.

Mr. Kalish’s ruminative interpretation of Brahms’s pensive Intermezzo in B minor (Op. 119, No. 1) set the tone for songs by Schumann, Wolf, Berg and Weill. The program ended with sly and captivating performances in three of the clever and stylistically eclectic “Cabaret Songs” by the composer William Bolcom and the lyricist Arnold Weinstein.

An especially affecting moment of the recital came early on, when Mr. Kalish played “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’s monumental “Concord” Piano Sonata: amazing music, at once contemplative and restless, inspired by thoughts of home, hearth, culture and transcendence. Seated nearby, Ms. Upshaw simply listened, completely absorbed. She seemed to be thinking again, “It’s great to be here.”

©2007 New York Times

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