One of today's finest singers, American soprano Dawn Upshaw may not have a large voice, but she uses it with tonal beauty, artistic sensitivity and genuine humanity. Last weekend at Overture Hall, for her first appearance with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, she demonstrated her wide, even unconventional range of repertoire.
Upshaw has been an ardent champion of the music of Osvaldo Golijov, now in his late 40s. She accordingly offered a group of three songs he adapted for her for soprano and small orchestra. The first, a Yiddish fantasy, and the second, a lament in Gallego, the idiom of Galicia in northwestern Spain, were handsomely lyrical and emotionally eloquent. The third set poetry of Emily Dickinson, a writer who often defeats composers. Here Golijov seemed unable to find a vocal line appropriate to her English verbal patterns.
After intermission, Upshaw delivered more rarity, five of the so-called "Songs of the Auvergne," as adapted by Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957). Canteloube drew his inspiration from folk music, mainly of southern French regions. Though he was highly prolific, most of his output has been forgotten, save for a series of adaptations of material from the Auvergne region, published 1923-30. These were dedicated to the refined French soprano Madeleine Grey, who recorded a number of them in the early 1930s. Her recordings made Canteloube's settings cult objects, and over the years many sopranos have tried to emulate Grey's subtlety and spirit.
Canteloube thought folksongs were not holy objects to be documented, but starting points for creative expansion. His settings, scored for modest orchestra, are not mere accompaniments but elaborate contexts devised for the tunes. Musically slight, these song settings are essentially vehicles for display of versatility in style and personality.
Upshaw's honest warmth and wit made her five selections quite entertaining. To admit that her singing, rather than what she sang, was the whole point is, of course, to suggest (sadly) that she might well have chosen other material more worthy of her talents.
Also a guest was conductor Carl St. Clair, in his second visit to the MSO podium. He framed the program with two crowd-pleasers, demonstrating his skill in milking such things for maximum roof-raising. In Richard Strauss' "Don Juan," while the reflective moments were not without nuance, St. Clair's goal was lush and recurrently rousing sonority. And in Ravel's ingenious essay in repetition, "Boléro," he carefully built its mounting sonorities into exactly the powerful climax the composer calculated.