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Seriously Playful

Celebrated vocalist Dawn Upshaw comes to town, bringing her expansive repertory and her reverence for everything she sings

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An Evening With Soprano Dawn Upshaw

8 p.m. Sept. 12

Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, 2400 Blakemore Ave.

$30, $15 for Vanderbilt students, faculty and staff

Call 322-7651 for more information

Several really fine “serious” singers have come to our town lately—Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Kathleen Battle. None of them had a suitable place to perform, and Kathleen Battle was catastrophically overwhelmed by the Nashville Symphony in Jackson Hall. Now another very fine singer is coming to town to perform in what could be a very promising concert. For starters, she’ll be singing in a fine venue indeed—Blair’s new Ingram Hall.

The singer is Dawn Upshaw, and though she was brought up in Park Forest, just outside Chicago, her career might support astrologers’ claims that the place and moment of birth are crucially important: Born in Music City in 1960, Upshaw has become one of the finest and most versatile vocalists of our time.

Her career was launched when she won a Young Concert Artists competition in 1984. Now her disciplined voice is in full flower. To great acclaim she sings Mozart’s elegant witty operas in New York, Paris, Salzburg and Vienna. She also sings Renaissance modal plangencies as well as Handel’s and Bach’s great baroque brocades. She sings Debussy’s shimmery impressionism and Rachmaninov’s lush Romantic soulfulness. And like Meryl Streep or Maggie Smith onstage or onscreen, she delivers each role as if in her very self and voice.

Upshaw performs the full gamut of the classical repertory, right down to the cutting edge. In 1999-2000, she did two world premieres: She sang Daisy Buchanan in John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, and she sang the title role in Clemence, an opera by contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Dawn Upshaw is nothing if not a serious musician.

But her seriousness includes a lot of playfulness, and she finds both in more than one basket: She sings Bernstein, Sondheim, Kurt Weill and Mark Blitzstein; she sings Rodgers and Hart; and she sings a Russian-born composer whose mother named him Vladimir Dukelsyk, a name even less known than his American alias, Vernon Duke. In one performance only, on Sept. 12, Upshaw will use Duke (1903-1969) as closer of a selection of songs reaching down from John Dowland (1563-1626), who composed a kind of elegant English Renaissance blues that Ella Fitzgerald should have sung, to Osvaldo Golijov, born in 1960 into an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina.

Golijov emblematizes why Upshaw’s music is a sumptuous fondue pot. His mother a piano teacher, his father a medical doctor, the young composer grew up immersed in classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music and the “new tango” of Astor Piazzolla. He moved to Israel in 1983, and thence to the U.S. in 1986, where he took a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1991, Golijov has been an associate professor at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He has written a lot of music in a wide range of forms and styles—including a “St. Mark Passion” commissioned by Helmuth Rilling to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. This music, metabolizing materials from unlikely conjugations, is, according to the jazz and classical critic Aryeh Oron, “taking the music world by storm.”

The proposed Blair program is not at all stormy. But Golijov, the only composer still living, is the axis of it. He is preceded by Dowland, Debussy (d. 1918) and Rachmaninoff (d. 1943). He is succeeded by Modest Mussorgsky (d. 1881) and Vernon Duke. Golijov is represented by one song, a setting of a text by Spanish poet Rosalia de Castro (d. 1885), in a Galician dialect that looks and sounds more like Portuguese than Castilian. The words in “Colorless Moon” strongly suggest the dark Portuguese laments called fados or “fate songs”; the speaker talks to the moon about disappointment and hopelessness and the wish simply to cease to be. But the music married to the text contradicts the text and incarnates beauty the words claim to deny.

As listed, Upshaw’s program will end with three songs by Duke. According to the South African critic Peter Wagenaar, this underrated composer is known, if at all, for writing the music to four great standard show tunes: “April in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” But he did a lot of other noteworthy work, some of which is collected on the 1999 album Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke. For Wagenaar, the album shows Duke to be the peer of his great contemporaries in the 1930s and to be “surprisingly 'modern’ ”—that is, closer to Sondheim than to Gershwin.

And it shows Upshaw to be perhaps unique among opera singers who undertake to deliver less “serious” stuff : She sings absolutely without condescension, treating Duke with the same respect she shows to Dowland and Mozart and Bach. In so doing, she identifies and clarifies a common thread of substance and authenticity binding together the Renaissance laments of Dowland, the Iberian laments of Galicia via the Argentine Jewishness of Golijov, and the masterfully urbane show tunes of a Russian émigré friend of Stravinsky and Koussevitzky.

Only one of Duke’s songs on this program is a famous standard. “April in Paris,” a 1932 setting of a lyric by E.Y. Harburg, is as sophisticated as Cole Porter, without Porter’s defensively ironic brilliance. Written for a Broadway revue, it has nothing to do with the mediocre Doris Day/Ray Bolger movie given the same name 20 years later. The second song is the darkest of the three. “The Love I Long For” sets a lyric by Howard Dietz for a 1928 movie called Sadie Thompson. Starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore, the film was based on a novel by Somerset Maugham—faded glories all.

The closing song, “Not a Care in the World,” sets a lyric by John Latouche for a 1941 revue called Banjo Eyes, the last Broadway show for the enormously popular Eddie Cantor (whose nickname served as the show’s title). Cantor turned a long string of tunes into enduring standards, among them “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” A heart attack in 1952 pushed him into early retirement; he died in 1964 and today few people under 40 even know his name.

The lyric for “Not a Care” is in the spirit of the Gershwins’ “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” except that in this case, the singer has no care because he is loved by his beloved—or thinks he is. As the finale for Upshaw’s constellation of songs, the song resonates with everything that comes before it—and especially with Golijov’s pivotal selection. That resonance delivers a proclamation: The names of Rosalia de Castro and Vernon Duke and Eddie Cantor may fade in the public’s memory, but the beauty and joy and art they brought into the world remains and redeems. Upshaw’s recorded evidence is compelling. Heard in live performance, it should be even more so.

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