Review of Recital by Dawn Upshaw and Stephen Prutsman April 1, 2012, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco

A weekend visit for a family occasion in the Bay Area enabled me to attend Dawn Upshaw’s rescheduled recital for San Francisco Performances at the Herbst Theatre.  The recital had originally been scheduled for January 28 but was rescheduled as she recovered from surgery.  The printed program was the same as for the originally scheduled  event, but was modified slightly in the actual performance, most notably in the substititution of Rachmaninov’s  “Dream” for Golijov’s  “Lua Descolorida”, and Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” for Vernon Duke’s  “The Love I Long For”.  The performance order within some of the sets had also been rearranged.  (The program as sung on the evening of April 1 is appended to the review).

Her 1999 recital in Seattle, which featured a performance of a piece that she had just premiered a week earlier (James Primosch’s  “Holy the Firm”, dedicated to her), as well as Golijov’s  Lua Descolorida and sets by Mozart, Messiaen, Ravel and Vernon Duke,  was memorable not only for her clear diction, careful phrasing and line, and deep commitment to contemporary music, but also for her informality in starting the recital by explaining why it was that she was not wearing shoes (her feet had been hurting and it was more comfortable not to wear them while standing on stage and singing).

So I was rather expecting to hear something new and strange, that I might not ever want to hear anyone else sing, but that would be effective because of her technique and artistry, and that I would be willing to appreciate because of her deep commitment to the music and connection with the audience.  The program we actually heard was quite different, in that each section mixed styles, languages, and musical periods, except for the last one, which was entirely 20th century, and mostly American (or naturalized American).

An announcement was made at the beginning that the artists were experimenting with using supertitles and would welcome  audience feedback on them.   So there were no text/translation handouts, nor any program notes, other than biographies of Upshaw and Prutsman.  And, since we weren’t expected to be consulting translations during the performance, the house lights were darkened completely, which allowed us to concentrate more fully on the stage, but left us without the ability to consult visual clues in the program to know when a set had finished and we should applaud.  Since the artists for the most part moved quickly from one song to the next, we were able to tell by their slight relaxation that we had reached the end of “Part I”, and we applauded properly.  But during the second half, it wasn’t until we saw “Part IV” projected that we realized where we were and began to applaud (in fairness, even if we had memorized the order of the songs before the lights went down, there were enough modifications that we really couldn’t have known for sure).   The artists were good natured about this, so it was not too uncomfortable for anyone, but it would have been nice to be able to give appropriate rapt attention to the sets of songs that had been chosen, then promptly show our appreciation at the right moment.

The recital opened with Purcell’s “Music for a While” followed by Schubert’s “Im Frühling”: she offered to beguile our cares with an evening of music, then further specified that, in the imagined role of the bird at the end of “Im Frühling”, she would sing to us about a lost love.  The remainder of the first part tells the story of the happy time of meeting and loving.  She was particularly effective in the Debussy “La Chevelure” and  Messiaen “Le collier”, as the love story reached its peak of sensuous happiness.  Part II was the aftermath: the anger, painful longing, regret, and renewal that comes from losing a loved one, whether it be to love’s capriciousness (“Als Luise die Briefe”, “Die Bekehrte”),  to death (“Weep you no more sad fountains”), or simply through not speaking about it  (“She never told her love”) and finding oneself driven to love again  (“Rastlose Liebe”).

The second half of the recital began with a section that focused on night and sleep.  Since I loved Golijov’s  Lua Descolorida when I first heard her sing it in 1999, I confess to being disappointed that she did not sing it this time, but the Rachmaninov  “Dream” that she substituted was effective and well sung—and a good deal shorter.  This substitution could also explain how it was that we needed to be shown  the  “Part IV” supertitle to know that Part III had ended.

The recital concluded with a set that began with Bartok’s ”Eddig valo,” a folk song  that tells of leaving  home to go into exile, followed by a nicely phrased performance of Bolcom’s “Waitin’”, which can seem rather blocky if not sung skillfully.  The last two songs were written by Americans who had emigrated from Europe: Kurt Weill and Irving Berlin.  During “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” she used unusually vivid and specific gestures as she made her pianist, Stephen Prutsman, the object of her bewilderment about love and how to make it happen.  (He did his part by appearing to ignore her and  concentrate on playing the accompaniment as she moved in closer and closer, although in fact the accompaniment he played was perfectly sensitive to her performance.)

It was tempting, comparing this program of her “old favorites”, hearing some of them sung in a lower tessitura than she used to do, and knowing that she had been ill earlier this year, to think that perhaps this recital was intended to be less demanding on her vocal resources than her usual fare.  But she sang the entire first half of the program with only one brief pause between the two parts, during which time the artists did not leave the stage.  We timed this at 45 minutes of fairly nonstop singing, which to me says that there is nothing wrong with her stamina.  I am inclined to think instead that her work schedule doesn’t allow her the time to really learn and prepare new music to the standard that she expects, so she is choosing to connect with her audiences through songs that she has learned thoroughly in the past and knows well.

Upshaw is a very down-to-earth singer with an authoritative understanding of the music she sings, and few, if any, diva mannerisms.  She wore black slacks and a flowing  tunic in a black and neutral print, with high heeled black sandals.  While singing, she may not act out the specific phrases of the texts, but she is clearly connected emotionally, and her gestures are contained and supportive of the songs.  To make this connection with her emotions, she has a habit of closing her eyes, which is risky, as it can shut the audience out, but in this case it worked for me as an illustration of the intimacy of the song form, where we are invited into the singer’s soul.  (By contrast, one of my companions felt that it shut us out.)   Her singing technique, which seemingly derives from a natural facility for supporting sound on the breath but often stops short of making a rich, warm sound, increased the intimacy of this connection.  The overall effect to me was that I could be sitting in a living room, with a cousin or aunt who was singing songs that she loved, one after another, because they pleased her and she thought they would please us, and I was happy to be drawn under the spell.  (I also derived personal inspiration in seeing that it was possible to give an effective and compelling recital by singing songs that one knows and loves well, even if there are moments when one’s voice is no longer as dazzling and youthful as it once was).

Since San Francisco performances had requested audience feedback on the supertitles I sent them mine, and received the following reply: “We received many responses. Most were positive with constructive suggestions on how they need to be improved including the names of the composers and having the English for songs in English as well.  Going forward, we will consult with the artists who find super titles appropriate for their programs, as the process requires a commitment and a lot of preparation by the artists to do it properly.  When we do this again we will inform you in advance and have the texts and translations available on line the week before the concert and also have some copies of the texts and translations available at information table in the theatre for those who want them.  Program notes about the music being performed will be printed in the program book and will also be available on the website.”


Part I:

Purcell: Music for a while

Schubert: Im Frühling

Faure: L’aube blanche

Dowland: Come again, sweet love doth now invite

Schumann: Die Lotosblume

Berg: Im Zimmer

Debussy: La Chevelure

Messiaen: Le Collier

Part II:

Mozart: Als Luise die Briefe

Rachmaninoff: To her

Wolf: Die Bekehrte

Dowland: Weep you no more, sad fountains

Haydn: She never told her love

Schubert: Rastlöse Liebe


Part III:

Monteverdi: Oblivion Soave

Ruth Crawford Seeger: White Moon

Korngold: Mond, so gehst du wieder auf

Warlock: Sleep

Rachmaninov: Dream

Part IV:

Arr. Bartok: Eddig valo

Bolcom: Waitin’

Weill: I’m a Stranger Here, Myself

Berlin: What’ll I Do