All for Nonesuch with Kalish, Upshaw and friends at BAM
Nonesuch records has been an essential resource for modern and contemporary American classical music for decades. Thursday night’s concert at the Harvey Theater in the Nonesuch Records at BAM series brought some of those recordings to glorious life.
The headliners for this BAM Next Wave Festival event were soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gilbert Kalish performing selected songs from Charles Ives and George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, music that Kalish had a part in recording for Nonesuch. He and the marvelous mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani collaborated on a classic album of Ives songs, and Kalish was in the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble that accompanied DeGaetani on the premiere recording of Crumb’s mysterious and beautiful composition.
But first, a surprise: cellist Fred Sherry, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, oboist Stephen Taylor and harpsichordist Jeffrey Grossman opened the concert with a piece by Elliott Carter, Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord. Underlining the theme, the music can also be heard on yet another, essential, Nonesuch album that also includes what for decades was the only in-print recording of Carter’s important Double Concerto.
Underlined, then made to resonate: the Sonata is one of Carter’s strongest works, and the playing was as fine as can be imagined. In Carter’s long career, the piece (from 1952) can almost be thought of as the early work of a composer finding his style. The Sonata is a clear statement of the combination of constant variation and dialogue he would refine for the next 60 years, and it stands alone as a superb chamber piece.
The music moves through Carter’s typical vein of rich tonality and dissonance, and follows the shape of archaic dance forms. It is restlessly vital from the opening flourish, and Carter keeps the instruments active by having them share and trade phrases, finish each other’s thoughts and punctuate each other’s sentences. This demands precise playing, and the musicians were sharp as cut glass, with Sherry and the wind players nailing matched pitches with perfection. More important, the playing was deeply musical, every phrase had a meaning and a purpose. And in this theater, the tone and color each produced was gorgeous.
There was another surprise in the second set, the Ives’ songs. The selection was all well-known numbers, from sentimental to comic, starting with “Songs My Father Taught Me” and including “Ann Street,” “Tom Sails Away,” “Like a Sick Eagle,” “The Cage,” “Memories,” “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” and “Down East.”
Upshaw is drastically different singer from DeGaetani; her voice is lighter and has an unforced sweetness—there is more than one way to sing great songs. Her voice has gained a subtle, darker tone that she can use in the low and middle registers, and the unique way she places it in the back of her throat is effective in intimate settings, like the Harvey.
Her inherent naturalism makes her an ideal Ives singer: the composer’s idea of the art song has little artifice, his setting of poetry and his own words were normal means of expression. She is also intelligent, expressive and self-effacing—she ad-libbed during “Memories: A – Very Pleasant” that she couldn’t whistle but the Gil could (and he did)—and the way she frequently delayed her vibrato on held pitches let the music speak eloquently through her voice. Closing with “Housatonic” then “Down East” was a brilliant way to reveal Ives’ strange mixture of the mystic and maudlin, and Upshaw’s understated singing made it work.
The surprise was halfway through the set, when Kalish, a superior accompanist, played the Alcotts movement from the “Concord” Sonata. As he showed in his performance of the “Concord” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters back in April, there is no greater Ives player, and no greater pairing of composer and interpreter. From the opening four-note motif, Kalish played this extraordinary and beautiful music with the even-handed transparency that it demands. That repeated figure, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the ringing high notes, and resounding low ones, are all obvious plateaus to scale, but the connective tissue—the way Ives’ memory ambles from point to point—is the key to the music’s meaning. Kalish unlocked the piece.
Upshaw was comfortable with the inherent theatricality in the musical choreography of Ancient Voices of Children. The music, a series of evocative tone poems using poetry from Federico Garcia Lorca, is ritualistic with striking gestures: Kalish singing into the piano strings, through a tube, the off-stage boy soprano, the oboists who walks offstage, and the way the musicians also chant and sing.
Ancient Voices is an ensemble piece, and every musician gets to make an important statement. Her performance was matched by the quiet, focused intensity of the players: Kalish, Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, the boy soprano, James Moore, who played the quarter-tuned mandolin and saw, harpist Bridget Kibbey, oboist and harmonica payer Stephen Hammer, and percussionist Talujon.
Upshaw’s understated way with the text was ideal. The configuration of the musicians and instruments, the notes she sang and that the others played, all fit into a crystalline structure of sound and action, a multi-dimensional matrix of aural perspective, abstract narrative, and contemplation. The original album was a surprise best seller, with Crumb considered an avant-gardist. But he is truly working deep within the classical tradition and the technical thinking of Western painting, and excellent performances like this make his language clear, direct and enthralling.