In my many years of reviewing music, I had somehow failed to see the potential of the instrumental combination of voice, piano, and percussion quartet until a lovely Terrace Theater recital on Thursday night for the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts demonstrated its merits. The voice was Dawn Upshaw’s, the pianist was Gil Kalish, and the quartet was the redoubtable So Percussion, which certainly helped to sell a program of ear-friendly new work.
The opener and in ways the most bracing piece on the program was a healthy excerpt from “Music for Wood and Strings” by Bryce Dessner, a composer-curator who first became known as a guitarist with the rock band the National. The title seemed to hark back to the spare, DIY tradition of works like Steve Reich’s 1973 “Music for pieces of wood,” but the “wood and string” instruments that Dessner created for the percussionists were considerably more elaborate, a kind of amplified hammered dulcimer capable of creating a wide range of sounds. The result was a kind of steampunk departure from the music of its forebears, riffing on both early minimalism and folk song in an intense and complex wash of twanging sound.
Folk song was the main theme of the evening: the other two works, both equally substantial, both literally incorporated traditional music, with Upshaw and Kalish not so much headlining as interweaving their music with the percussionists. First up was Caroline Shaw’s recent “Narrow Sea,” which was written as a response to the work that finished the program, “Winds of Destiny” from the fourth American Songbook by the venerable George Crumb.
Both of these pieces deconstructed traditional folk songs. Shaw took “Wayfaring Stranger” and other 19th-century classics and actually reshaped the melodies, pulling apart the words so that the voice became an instrument among the other instruments in a wistful, thoughtful fabric.
Crumb, by contrast, kept the core of the songs he used — “Glory, Hallelujah,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah” — and only teased them apart at the edges, setting them adrift in an unfamiliar context of tones and rustles and plonks, or slightly recasting them. For instance, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” underlined a kind of war-hysteria by having the soprano almost scream the chorus, repeatedly, before dropping her into a mournful, exhausted, drooping dirge.
Upshaw has had an impressive career throughout a spectrum of new music, and she made a fine case for these songs. What is striking is that she has so little vocal presence apart from the music she sings. She can float a beautiful high note, but the singing that was called for her was a straightforward, almost childlike sound, and that’s what she delivered: a voice free of operatic allures, sometimes sounding taxed and a little frayed by the demands of the music. It was a kind of singer-songwriter approach from an artist who specializes in reinventing herself for the pieces that she champions and who was here very much one of the guys in a truly refreshing program.