Sunday, April 06, 2008

In Good Hands

On Friday evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was the first SPCO concert this season for us.

The guest soloist was Dawn Upshaw, and her presence made the concert worthwhile. She sang a group of songs from Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder in the first half of the concert, and Berio’s Folksongs in the second half. I thought she was marvelous.

Miss Upshaw has suffered from well-publicized health problems the last few years, but her health issues appear not to have affected her voice. Her voice sounded no different on Friday night than the last several times I heard her. This is gratifying, because she is an important artist, and a master of several important modernist vocal scores.

She looked awful. She has aged fifteen years since I last saw her, which was shortly before she began a series of gruesome cancer treatments, and her illness has unmistakably taken a great toll on her health, as would be expected. I hope and pray for her full recovery.

I have always liked Dawn Upshaw, although she is hardly my favorite singer. Her voice is very pure, and she is an intelligent and very serious musician. She is very charming onstage and quite likeable, but she also tends to lather an all-purpose “sincerity” onto everything she sings. In a solo recital, this regrettable tendency quickly becomes tiresome if not irritating. In concert, this shortcoming is not as pronounced, since she has to share the stage and the program and the music-making with other artists.

Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder were cleanly sung, but I did not think that the Brettl-Lieder showed Upshaw to particular advantage. Her treatment of the songs was bland, lacking wit and bite and the undercurrent of Viennese melancholy that permeates several of the songs. I also was not impressed with her German, which was nowhere near as fine as her French or English (Miss Upshaw is one of the finest singers of English I have ever encountered).

Berio’s Folksongs, which concluded the evening, found Miss Upshaw in much more congenial territory, and she offered as fine a performance of this intriguing and fun song cycle I ever expect to hear. When the work came to an end, I wanted to shout out “Do it again!”

The orchestra also performed Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, one of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s signature pieces, Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 1, and a short work by Revueltas. The conductor was Reinbert De Leeuw, the excellent Dutch conductor of modernist repertory who appears very seldom in the U.S.—and, when he does, it seems that he appears only in Saint Paul and nowhere else.

I have not encountered De Leeuw for a while. He, too, has aged considerably, looking much older than I remember him from just a few years back.

No doubt De Leeuw could have conducted all the works on Friday night’s program in his sleep, so completely has he mastered so many 20th-Century scores. There was, nevertheless, nothing rote or routine about his music-making, and the orchestra played to a very high standard. It was a most enjoyable concert.

On Saturday, Josh and I went over to my parents’ house and helped them with a few things around the house and yard. My mother fed us well, of course, and we had a lot of fun, both because the dog was always in the midst of things, demanding constant attention and affection, and demanding to be included in our activities, and because my father helped us and talked to us while we worked. My father is great company. He is also the world’s greatest conversationalist, in possession of a mind of the most startling originality and clarity, and it is always a privilege to listen to whatever he has to say on any subject.

We talked about politics, of course, as well as Boston, and law school, and my brothers’ plans to return home. We also talked about books, and what we have been reading.

On Saturday night, we did not watch the semi-final games of the NCAA tournament. No one wanted to—which was good, as things turned out, because neither game was even remotely close. Instead, we played scrabble and talked, and talked to my brothers on the phone, and played with the dog, and made homemade ice cream, which we ate with blackberry cobbler.

Today, after church, Josh and I took my parents out to lunch. After lunch, we visited my grandmother at the care facility and afterward we returned to my parents’ house, where Josh and I stayed for an early dinner.

On Tuesday, I must travel to Milwaukee on business. I will return Friday afternoon.

While I am gone, Josh will stay with my parents. He’ll have good company, and good food, and lots of dog love while I am gone. He’ll be in good hands (and paws).

1 comment:

  1. Andrew:

    For some reason, I have never been able to get into Dawn Upshaw. I have heard her several times, and I cannot even remember what she sang. For me, that is the acid test--if I can't remember what an artist performed, something was definitely missing.