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Dawn Upshaw At Longy: The Woman With The Pearl Voice

Dawn Upshaw and Dwayne Croft in Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" in 2000. (AP / Martin Gnedt)


If you enter Dawn Upshaw’s name into your iPhone, or at least into my iPhone, the autocorrect changes it to Dawn Upside.

Those Apple folks know what they’re talking about. Just about every composer in the Western world, and probably those in the East as well, know the Upshaw Upside. The woman with the pearl voice has not only been a tireless champion of contemporary composers, but she makes them all sound as accessible as Schubert.

Overstatement? Not much. Just listen to her most recent Ondine recording of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone,” in which she gives such lustrous voice to the French poet and mystic, Simone Weil. Or another of her recent projects, a collaboration with Maria Schneider, in which they so strikingly cover both jazz and classical terrain. Or to any of her thrilling collaborations with local composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Dawn Upshaw with Michael Schumacher in "La Passion de Simone" in 2007. (AP / Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts / Tristram Kenton)

Dawn Upshaw with Michael Schumacher in “La Passion de Simone” in 2007. (AP / Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts / Tristram Kenton)

Or better yet, head over to the Longy School of Music at 7 Tuesday night for her most recent “First Songs” collaboration with the Bard Graduate Vocal Arts Program, rescheduled from February. (Tickets are free but need to be ordered in advance.) Upshaw is the artistic director for the Bard Vocal Arts Program and she and pianist Kayo Iwama, a Bard faculty member. She and students in the program will be performing works by Bard students and alumni as well as by Longy composition major Daniela DeMatos. She begins the program with works by Laura Schwendinger and Juliana Hall and ends with George Tsontakis’s “Love’s Philosophy,” set to the Shelley poem, and John Harbison’s three songs from “Simple Daylight.” The students take over in between.

When I feel so connected to the music that I can imagine the evolution of the music and begin a dialogue with the composer about what we might do next, that’s the best.

– Dawn Upshaw

“Our first performance was in the Morgan Library at Bard,” she noted on the phone. “There’s a relationship between Bard and Longy and we’re looking to share our projects by bringing them here. It’s great for us and great to share with the students in the Boston area.”

Among the other composers on the program are local composer John Harbison, whose work she has recorded, and others associated with Bard who aren’t as well known. What drives her to contemporary music?

“It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it till people started asking me,” she said with a laugh. ”As an undergad, which was a long time ago, I didn’t know all that much about classical music. All my interest was in musical theater and more popular music, but I think my focus shifted once I was in my history classes for my music degree. My music world exploded with many more styles of song. But I didn’t lose interest in music of my own time … I think it has become even stronger purely because I find it interesting and gratifying and an obvious thing to do, to respond to what’s going on around me right now.”

No one has responded any better, certainly to Saariaho and Golijov. Saariaho’s sensuous sound cape was featured earlier in the season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both are among the more dramatic composers working today, though in different veins.

Her introduction to Saariaho was the Salzburg premiere of “Château de l’Âme,” based on Eastern texts, which she later recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. “I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s mesmerizing to me. I couldn’t articulate it then or maybe now, I just knew I was drawn to it and wanted to explore the music for how otherworly and dramatic it seemed — the way she writes for orchestras and singers, the way she builds very slowly and dramatically in terms of opera. I’m fascinated at the complexity but with its lack of anything superfluous. Her music still kind of boggles my mind.”

As for Golijov, who lived in Israel and Argentina before coming here, “I was listening to a lot of composers I hadn’t sung before, asking friends and colleagures for recommendations. I was in touch with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet. Kronos does new music all the time and I expected a long list and he just gave me one name, Osvaldo’s. I thought, “That’s striking, that David gave me one name.”

After listening, “I could definitely hear all the different kinds of music. Osvaldo has his own personal history and I felt connected to it in some deep way in terms of expression, the beauty of the line, the way he wrote for orchestra and voice, each piece led to the next one. There are a handful of composers [like Osvaldo] I’ve had such extended relations with — John Harbison Kaija, Donnacha Dennehy — I’m beginning to work on a third piece of his. When I feel so connected to the music that I can imagine the evolution of the music and begin a dialogue with the composer about what we might do next, that’s the best.”

She has several recordings of Golijov’s music on DG and Nonesuch. She also has a number of sensational Nonesuch CDs centered on musical theater, traversing Vernon Duke and Rodgers and Hart, some with fellow Nonesuch All-Stars like Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin covering George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. While many a great singer, from Kiri Te Kanawa and Leontyne Price to Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, has butchered “Somewhere,” Upshaw’s version can bring you to your knees. (Nonesuch has done a poor job keeping many of the better titles in print,  but most can be found on the Internet.)

Upshaw is also exuberant about her work with Schneider. “I’ve been a huge fan of hers for years. I would go and hear her band play – it was a tradition with my daughter and now with my son to go and hear her at Thanksgiving at the Jazz Standard [in New York]. I finally got up the courage to ask her to do a new piece a few years ago, which she set to the work of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Then I thought ‘We ought to do another one, something more intimate’ … The result was ‘Winter Morning Walks’ and I’m just kind of crazy about this piece. We toured it and got it all on CD on Maria’s label, ArtistShare. They’re based on the ‘Winter Morning Walks’ poems of Pulitzer-Prize winner Ted Kooser.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Upshaw is how seamlessly she goes from one musical idiom to the next. If you plug her name into Spotify, the music listening service, Rodgers and Hart flows into Golijov who flows into Purcell who flows into Messiaen and it’s always the same lustrous, unaffected voice.

Which goes back to the Upshaw Upside. While Upshaw makes it all seem effortless you know she’s put in the work that makes the musical choices seem intuitive, something that comes as much from her heart as her head.

“It makes me sad,” she said, “when a young student makes a quick judgment because it doesn’t connect readily. Part of what is so important to us at Bard with this project is for students to have the experience of communicating with the composer and also find something real in a new piece of music.”

It’s hard to imagine a better teacher than Upshaw. She makes it all real.


Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider on Here & Now.

Peter Conrad’s profile of Upshaw in the Observer.

Ed Siegel’s Favorite Upshaw Recordings

  • Barber, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and other selections, Nonesuch
  • “Leonard Bernstein’s New York,” with other singers, Nonesuch
  • Canteloube, “Songs of the Auvergne”, Erato
  • Dennehy, “Grá agus Bás,” Nonesuch
  • Gershwin, “Standards & Gems,” with other singers, Nonesuch
  • Golijov, “Ayre,” DG
  • Gorecki, Symphony No. 3, Nonesuch
  • Mahler, Symphony No. 4, London
  • Saariaho, La Passion de Simone
  • Sondheim, “Take Me To The World,” and other selections on “I Wish It So,” Nonesuch
  • “Voices of Our Time,” DVD, Many of the composers listed in the story, TDK



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