The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s artistic leadership model, rather than depending on one strong maestro to determine the organization’s musical character, engages a cadre of world-class musicians with star status and particular specialties. Friday night’s concert introduced the SPCO’s newest “artistic partner”–and also its first woman in that role–soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Upshaw was paired perfectly with pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard, who joined the orchestra as an artistic partner last year. The two have compatible visions and complementary personalities on stage. Both bring twin specialties of classical and contemporary music and both are considered important interpreters of Mozart. Aimard is identified as an acolyte of Boulez and a champion of contemporary composers, while Upshaw, who just won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship, is noted not just as a performer but as an integral and inspiring advocate for new music.
Where Aimard coolly captivates with a thrillingly articulate intent, Upshaw delivers her superhuman artistry with a warm, accessible humanity. She walked onstage as the anti-diva, unfussy and approachable in a little black dress with an artsy scarf draped around her. Her physical demeanor and engagement with the audience is simply likeable, and that quality matches her voice. She sings with a dancer’s flexibility, agility, and suppleness, and delivers text with an uncanny honesty and a range of expression that goes far beyond simple beauty. Beyond bringing her wide-ranging genius to concerts and programming, Upshaw is the perfect fit for the friendly neighborhood profile the SPCO has been working to grow.
Aimard conducted Haydn’s witty Symphony no. 60. Written as incidental music to a comic play by Regnard called The Absentminded Man, the symphony is an extended joke; the finale, essentially the punch line that derails the strings until they have to stop and retune, was camped up with the maestro’s mock frustration and embarrassment. Aimard also soloed on Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, a perfect vehicle for the clarity of his playing. In his hands, the andante was magnetic with pathos. Both classical works showed off the ensemble’s cleanliness while also revealing its warmth.
While not new music, Upshaw’s selections for her debut in this new role were great showpieces for her range of expression. She began with Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki (nonsense rhymes), a miniature song cycle of Russian poems. Along the lines of “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” the poems’ wit comes from their sound rather than the meaning of the words, and delivered by Upshaw they were an instant delight.
She sang Ravel’s "Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé" with graceful subtlety, her delicate phrasing perfectly paired with the ethereal pointillism rendered by the SPCO instrumentalists (including Aimard at the piano).
The high, clear notes the audience was waiting for were saved for Mozart’s “Ch’io mi scordi di te?,” a song that bleeds with ardent youthfulness. Upshaw delivered them with clarity and grace. With such a beginning, Upshaw’s term as artistic partner promises to be fruitful and fascinating.