Dawn Upshaw's first Carnegie Hall Perspectives season won't surprise anyone who has followed her career‹in other words, expect the unexpected.
"I want to take advantage of these amazing performance spaces to make all different kinds of music," the soprano explains from her home near New York City, "and to bring more contemporary and even brand-new works into the mix."
Upshaw's career, encompassing everything from early music to world premieres, has been nothing if not eclectic in its breadth. Among her many acclaimed recordings are operas by Messiaen, John Adams, and Mozart; the celebrated‹and seminal‹recording of Górecki's Third Symphony preserves one of her most emotional vocal outpourings.
Her Perspectives concerts find the Nashville native putting together the kinds of programs she's long wanted to do: "I have to say I was rather surprised but totally delighted when asked," she says. "I was given carte blanche to do whatever I want."
That includes four concerts this season that hit on all the singer's strengths: orchestral music, song recitals, baroque and 20th-century music, and commissions for new works. The first concert, November 13 in Isaac Stern Auditorium, pairs Upshaw with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the U.S. premiere of Correspondances by the eminent French composer Henri Dutilleux, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Upshaw, who recently sang the world premiere of the piece, was enthusiastic about working with Dutilleux, the grand old man of French music. "How elegant and charming and witty he is!" she exclaims. "I had met him a few years ago because I programmed a song of his that was never published ['San Francisco Night,' which she has since recorded on Erato], and the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle approached me about singing his new song cycle."
Dutilleux's first composition since The Shadows of Time in 1997, Correspondances is a seven-movement work for soprano and orchestra with "four sections for the singer and three purely orchestral interludes in between," as Upshaw describes it. "The work is based on several touching letters: There's one from Solzhenitsyn to Rostropovich and his wife while in a labor camp, and one from Van Gogh to his brother Theo, which is a very beautiful letter of the artist looking for inspiration. There's also a very short Rilke poem that Dutilleux set last."
For the second and third programs in her season, Upshaw moves into the more intimate confines of the new Zankel Hall. First up on December 5 is a concert that includes French melodies by Messiaen and Fauré. This program came out of a recording project Upshaw did with pianist Gilbert Kalish: "We have been doing a group of Messiaen songs on different programs for years together," she says. "We adore them and keep bringing them back. This time we decided to group them with Fauré's La Chanson d'Eve, which is one of my favorite song cycles but one that's not performed too often. It's unusual for Fauré to start with such a long song ['Paradis']. It's so broad and it says so much in eight fascinating minutes."
Another new work is by a composer Upshaw has grown very close to: Argentina's Osvaldo Golijov. Upshaw sang in his breakthrough oratorio La Pasión según San Marcos last year and this past summer took the lead in his latest opera, Ainadamar. For her March 31, 2004, recital in Zankel Hall, Upshaw is pairing Golijov with another contemporary composer: Luciano Berio.
"The idea for this recital came from Robert Hurwitz of Nonesuch Records," Upshaw explains. "He came to a concert at Tanglewood where I sang Berio's Folk Songs, and he had the idea to ask Osvaldo to write his own arrangements of folk songs. Osvaldo and I thought it was a great idea, but Osvaldo is doing something more than taking the songs and arranging them. There may be more original music."
Upshaw goes back a long way with Berio's arrangements. "I heard the Berio Folk Songs on a recording long ago and I wanted to find the right opportunity to perform them," she says. "I think they're spectacularly beautiful. There are eight instrumentalists‹viola, cello, harp, clarinet, flute, and percussion‹and some songs use all the instruments, while others use only a few. They're charming, inventive, have wonderful energy with great dance rhythms, and they're a lot of fun to perform."
For her last Perspectives performance this season (with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, May 2, 2004, in Isaac Stern Auditorium), Upshaw sings orchestral works by two composers who are not usually paired together: Bach and Bartók. "I don't really get an opportunity to sing Bach, who is one of my favorites," the soprano admits. "And I wanted to make a leap and also do something more contemporary. At first we thought of a commission, but there wasn't enough time for a composer to write something new. Richard Tognetti, the orchestra's leader, does arrangements for the group, and we began looking at what seemed exciting, colorful, and new. Bartók wrote so many volumes of folk song arrangements and they really have his stamp, but at the same time they speak simply, with a wide variety of colors."
Upshaw‹who is also conducting a vocal-composition workshop with composer John Harbison that extends over two seasons‹looks forward to continuing her Perspectives performances in 2004-2005. "Carnegie Hall has been such an important part of my musical life: not just as a performer, but also as a listener," she says. "It's a very precious gem, so I feel privileged to have this relationship with the Hall and its people and this great city."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.