When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra announced 18 months ago that soprano Dawn Upshaw had signed on as one of its “artistic partners,” I got pretty excited.
For one thing, it guaranteed that her warm, pure voice and keen musical intelligence would resonate through the Ordway multiple times over the next three seasons. For another, the partnership sounded like something new.
“It’s a very unusual collaboration and somewhat historic for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra,” agrees Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera. While the SPCO occasionally performs opera, “its emphasis is really chamber music, so the idea of working like this with a singer is really something new — especially someone like her. She is one of the foremost recital singers in the world.”
It was Upshaw’s voice that motivated the crowd to brave the frigid air for her debut Friday night, and she did not disappoint. While I doubt that anyone sensed history in the making, the performance did reveal subtle glimpses of the spirit that animates the SPCO’s artistic partnerships.
In case you have not followed the orchestra’s recent evolution, here is some background on the partnerships: In 2004, the SPCO abandoned the traditional “music director” model. Instead of taking its artistic lead from one principal conductor, the orchestra adopted a democratic approach, involving players in more of the decision-making. At the same time, the orchestra assembled a roster of respected outsiders to take turns collaborating with players and staff, both in planning and performing concerts.
Up to this point, the SPCO’s artistic partners have seemed a little like guest conductors in disguise. Three of the six partners before Upshaw have been conductors. The rest, such as pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, have been instrumental soloists who often have been pressed into service as conductors. Singers seem to be a different story. With the notable exception of tenor Placido Domingo, it’s a rare vocalist who will step into a conducting role. Although it is intriguing to imagine, we should not expect to see Upshaw with baton in hand at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts.
In this past weekend’s performances, Aimard handled the conducting chores. Upshaw, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was noticeably awkward about claiming the spotlight. After each piece she motioned almost immediately for Aimard and the orchestra to share in the warm reception. But the players were busy applauding along with the audience, so they resisted until she returned for second bows.
“I know the orchestra is really excited about having her as an artistic partner,” says John Mangum, the SPCO’s vice president for artistic planning. “This is the beginning of our exploration of working with different kinds of partners — not just conductors or instrumental soloists.”
Composers need muses
Upshaw will bring three distinctive qualities to the SPCO mix, says Mangum. For one thing, he says, she is well known for performing core repertory that is also the bread and butter of the SPCO: Bach, Handel, Purcell, Mozart.
Another Upshaw asset, Mangum says, “will be a different kind of artistry from the other four artistic partners.” Along with Aimard and Upshaw, the current partners are conductors Roberto Abbado, Douglas Boyd and Nicholas McGegan. According to Mangum, Upshaw champions modern music in a way that complements the interests of Abbado and Aimard. (You can see Upshaw rehearse music by 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen here.)
Dale Johnson puts it like this: “Composers need muses — singers to write for. She is a real muse for many composers — an icon for the late 20th and early 21st centuries.” Johnson looks forward to hearing her perform music by an Argentinean-born composer whose name lots of lips are struggling to pronounce these days: Osvaldo Golijov. Upshaw has some Golijov arrangements planned for St. Paul in April.
Mangum promises a “third strand” to the SPCO’s partnership with Upshaw, one they are not quite ready to spin out. The plan is to “look at music through a different lens, collaborating with people you wouldn’t think of immediately in the classical world.” He says he may be ready to name names next month.
Mangum views the orchestra’s experience with Upshaw as “just the beginning of our exploration. There’s a lot more out there that can enrich the artistic life of the chamber orchestra. Dawn is a great testimony to the vibrancy of that idea. I hope it comes through in the concerts.”