June 14, 2011
The creativity that has been vividly apparent throughout Dawn Upshaw’s career, as she has eschewed the standard opera star route in favor of new works (or simply the repertoire she finds most appealing), has been put to work at this year’s Ojai Festival, where she is serving in the annually rotating role of music director. This is also the first year the longstanding festival has found a foothold in the Bay Area, partnering with Cal Performances for the launch of its Ojai North Festival this week. Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra brought a wonderfully varied program, freshly minted at Ojai just this past Sunday, to Zellerbach Hall Tuesday night.
The biggest draw of the night was Upshaw teaming with the orchestra for Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, an Ojai/Cal Performances/ACO co-commission in its Bay Area premiere. Schneider, who’s best known for leading her own jazz orchestra, is a kind of jazz impressionist, a bit in the lineage of Gil Evans. This setting of nine poems by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser was written for Upshaw and the ensemble’s 11 string players, as well as three frequent jazz colleagues of Schneider’s: clarinetist Scott Robinson, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and bassist Jay Anderson.
Crumb & Sellars' creation at Ojai North
Upshaw was ideal for this piece, offering a full emotional investment and unaffected embodiment of the texts. Her approach was a perfect match for the poems’ evocations of subtle variations in light, landscape, and internal reflection in the course of a midwestern winter. Schneider’s writing, however, largely seemed a missed opportunity. Too often Upshaw’s voice was supported by an overly sweet bed of strings that veered occasionally into movie-music territory, and by my count the music of eight of the nine movements might be called “elegiac” even though the texts had much more variety. Schneider’s text setting was clear, and in its best moments the lyricism of her writing was genuinely affecting. But the lack of variety in her approach became tiresome early on, and the brief improvisational sections for the jazz players gave them little room for much more than tasteful fills.
The concert was also a showcase for the considerable talents of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, who reshaped several works on the program in a variety of ways. Upshaw rejoined the Australians for Tognetti’s arrangement of Five Hungarian Folk Songs by Bartók, drawn from two of his collections. Upshaw, in fuller voice than the somewhat restrained sound she brought to the Schneider, was a marvel, filling the hall with a range of vocal colors and moods, in tune with the two laments that open the suite, as well as its rural images and invitations to dance. The strings were wonderfully warm and graceful, adding the proper grit and bite when needed, and struck an excellent balance with Upshaw throughout the work.
Potent, Poetic Playing by the Orchestra
Half the program was given over to entirely instrumental works. The ACO began the performance with a revealing intermingling of two distinct composers, illuminating both some common ground and the points of distinction between them. A movement-by-movement interpolation of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, in the composer’s 1929 orchestration, and four sections from George Crumb’s amplified 1971 work, Black Angels, revealed both composers as masters of gesture. Crumb seemed the heir to the expressionist movement of which Webern was a standard bearer, while the older composer emerged not as a paragon of “mathematically” based composition, as he is so often described, but instead as a predecessor of Crumb’s hyperemotive modernism. In both works, brief moments of intense expression are distilled and utterly potent.
The ACO was finely attuned to the dark lyricism of the Webern work, and equally to the harsher poetry of Crumb’s amplified sound world, in a performance of disciplined beauty. Webern’s music can fall flat even in good hands, suffering if its shape and expressive arc aren’t exactly right, which in this performance they were. Likewise, the players brought the Crumb work to a heightened state, its exploratory language sounding focused, poetic, and complete.
The program ended with Tognetti’s arrangement of Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27, for string orchestra. The playing here was simply stunning, displaying the ensemble’s collective virtuosity and robust sound. These players communicate with the unity and intimacy of a great string quartet, while infusing the music with the orchestral sweep and drama that their larger numbers offer. The Grieg arrangement was especially astute, at times breaking into the original work’s solo lines to touch on its original intention, and then returning to the full ensemble forces with riveting effect.
The appreciative Zellerbach audience got its wish with a creative encore. Tognetti, a compelling presence onstage, stepped out as the soloist in a slow Piazzolla tango, delivering a haunting, stylish performance. This gave way, without pause, to a lively arrangement of a Finnish folk tune, a nod to the two Finns in the orchestra. Like everything else on the program, the ensemble approached its encore as an opportunity for a fresh, inventive approach.