Performing Arts

Classical review: Dawn Upshaw, cohorts delight Festival Miami crowd

Dawn Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw

Composers from the world of popular music who attempt to write classical scores can find the distance between genres daunting. While many have failed to cross that divide successfully, Maria Schneider is clearly a creative artist who has made that leap with distinction. Best known as a jazz composer and band leader, Schneider conducted two of her song cycles at Festival Miami on Saturday night.

In many ways Schneider’s appearance on the Gusman Concert Hall stage was a homecoming. She is a former student at the UM Frost School of Music (as well as the Eastman School of Music and the University of Minnesota). Schneider has infused settings of poetry by North and South American writers with her affinity for Latin rhythms and improvisatory freedom without those elements seeming out of place or grafted onto the more traditional world of classicism.

Both of the works on the program were written for soprano Dawn Upshaw; however Upshaw performed only the more recent Winter Morning Walks.

Three students from the Frost Opera Theater, coached by Upshaw, took the solo roles in Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, Schneider’s 2008 setting of four often dark and foreboding poems by one of Brazil’s most famous writers (in English translations by former U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand).

Opening with a tip of the hat to Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, the score’s Prologue is a slow, wordless vocalise. While the music turns pensive for the somber imagery of “The Dead in Frock Coats,” “Souvenir of the Ancient World” is a lighter interlude with a Broadway sensibility. “Don’t Kill Yourself” is the heart of the work, a gutsy and poignant recitative over churning orchestral figures. In the witty stanzas of “Quadrille,” Schneider has set a cafe string quartet against lush ensemble textures in this final section of her winning cross-cultural songfest.

Superbly prepared and vocally secure, sopranos Mia Rojas and Zaray Rodriguez impressively negotiated Schneider’s demanding vocal writing. Still it was Vindhya Khare, who took star honors in Frost Opera Theater’s production of Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O last season, who made the strongest impression in the final two songs. With her clear diction and ease in the lowest and top extremes of the vocal range, Khare made the mother’s desperate plea to her son and the disarming tale of friends in interweaving romantic relationships musically and dramatically vital.

Upshaw’s appearance on stage was greeted with cheers, and she did not disappoint. Always a probing and inquisitive artist, Upshaw’s continued dedication to the performance and commissioning of contemporary music is wholly admirable.

Set to homespun texts by Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks is replete with pastoral harmonic and poetic allusions. From the pop-tinged “Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning” through the moving tonal painting of the rising sun in the concluding “How Important It Must Be,” Schneider creates luminous orchestral textures that support Upshaw’s ethereal high flights and darker forays in the low register.

The wonderful immediacy of the folklike “Walking by Flashlight” and moving simplicity of “My Wife and I Walk the Cold Road” are high points in this evocation of the individual’s relation to nature. In “I Saw a Devil This Morning,” Schneider even creates throbbing vocal patterns that sound like a classical version of scat.

Upshaw’s radiant vocalism and emotional delivery were riveting. Her tonal luster and pristine musicianship continue to mark her as an artist of exceptional gifts. Derek Smith’s haunting saxophone solos, Ted Cohen’s tastefully improvisatory piano riffs and George Saunders’ backing rhythm on acoustic bass met Schneider’s challenging writing spot-on. Rich violin and cello solos and the clarity and warmth of string and wind sonorities by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra contributed to banner performances, led with supple restraint by the multitalented Schneider.

Festival Miami continues with duo-pianists Genova and Dimitrov playing works by Chopin, Arensky, Borodin, Liszt and Shelly Berg 8 p.m. Wednesday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. festivalmiami.com; 305-284-4940.

For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com

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