The music world loves Dawn Upshaw, the American soprano who sang an exquisite recital Friday evening at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Yet perhaps because she is young and pleasant-mannered, and because she sings from a very centered, very sensible and very sincere inner musical core, she never quite gets the final benediction she deserves.
She is, of course, the greatest American vocal recitalist working today and one of the very best opera singers of our time. Hearing her exposed voice produces tunnel vision in the listener, banishing the distractions of the audience, the concert hall and the nagging little thoughts one carries there unwillingly. She is also one of the most versatile of singers, moving effortlessly from Broadway to the concert hall without being arch in the former or vulgar in the latter.
Upshaw has an ample, though not huge, voice. It is an instrument without the obvious quirks that make other voices "distinctive," the slight pulsing or quivering or judicious scooping or sighing that lends an immediate sense of emotional vulnerability to other great singers. But its sunny radiance is genuine, and it invites the listener to confront something rare and unlikely: a lieder singer who sings of the usual things--sadness, melancholy, self-flagellation and ennui--from a distance, engaging with, but never wallowing in, the sentiment.
Upshaw transcends merely beautiful singing with a voice that is capable of the musically inflected speech of a folk singer. This tendency is most pronounced in her lower range, where one hears a hint of all the cigarettes and booze that she probably never consumed.
Upshaw's programming is exceptionally imaginative, especially her now-standard inclusion of a substantial number of contemporary songs written for, or discovered by, her. On Friday night she sang works by Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Torke, James Primosch, Laura Elise Schwendinger and others--all of them born within six years of Upshaw's own birth in 1960. The six songs, though written in styles ranging from the exotic to contemporary American postminimalism, work together as a cycle, with moments of humor and reflection well balanced.
In John Musto's "Litany," the last of the series, there is a line that captured the singer's vast capacity for expression. Musto writes a quiet prayer for pity and gentleness, but when he sets to music Langston Hughes's lines "The sick, the depraved, the desperate, the tired, all the scum of our weary city," the word "scum" sounds through like a crack in stained glass. Upshaw sings "all the scum of our city" with a compassion the words themselves lack. She nurses and mends the harsh words into something still jarring but not quite so brutal.
She sings like an idealized older and wiser sister, describing the pains of life without terror so that the listener may know--and perhaps avoid crashing upon--them. When she enters directly into the sense of the poem, such as in Schumann's "Widmung" (one of the most ecstatically selfless love songs ever composed), one hears the same voice singing of itself. Friday's rendition of "Widmung" brought tears to one's eyes.
Also on the program: Maurice Ravel's comic menagerie of birds and a cricket, "Histoires Naturelles," three songs by Ruth Crawford Seeger and six songs by Schumann. Music by Vernon Duke and Leonard Bernstein closed the program. The Ravel demonstrated a natural sense of humor, the Seeger provided reminders of one of this country's horribly slighted composers, and the Schumann offered a chance to hear Upshaw's idiomatic German and fine sense of poetry. Encores by Charles Ives and William Bolcom were especially memorable. The very able accompanist was Gilbert Kalish.
CAPTION: Dawn Upshaw transcends merely beautiful singing with sensitive inflection.