When Robert Spano leads the world premiere of the Milosz Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic from John Harbison, the conductor will be reuniting with a fellow champion of new music: soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom the work was composed. The song cycle, a setting of 11 poems by the 20th-century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, represents the first commission from the Orchestra for Mr. Harbison and the fourth work Mr. Harbison has written for Ms. Upshaw.
Mr. Spano, who is music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, cherishes his numerous collaborations with the soprano: "Besides being a great singer, Dawn is also a great musician. She's sensitive to the subtlest aspects of music-making, to what's going on around her, to the nature of text setting, and to the coloring of a particular word. Her gifts are wide, varied, and deep."
The Milosz Songs form part of a carefully-considered program that also includes works by Bartók and Bernstein: "Bartók's music," Mr. Spano observes, "is often informed by dance, drawn from his interest in folk music and work as an ethnomusicologist, and wedded to an aesthetic experience. Bernstein's Symphonic Dances [from West Side Story] share this same quality. Having Harbison on the same half of the program as the Bernstein provides a distinctly American flavor."
Looking back on his Philharmonic debut in 2003, when he led the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Château de l'âme, Mr. Spano recalls, "What I noticed then was the facility and the flexibility of the Orchestra to digest what is utterly new so quickly. Within a few days the musicians possessed a deep musical understanding of the piece."Looking ahead to the coming world premiere, he adds, "For me, the challenge with a premiere is to imagine the composer's sound world, to create my 'inner stereo' of it, to try to match that with the composer's intentions, and project that for and through the orchestra."
Mario Mercado is arts editor at Travel + Leisure and author of The Evolution of Mozart's Pianistic Style.