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When Lilies Are Gilded

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
05/11/2008 -  
Antonin Dvorák: Serenade in D Minor for Winds, Opus 44
Igor Stravinsky: Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont – Three Japanese Lyrics – Suite from “Pulcinella” (1949 version)
Maurice Ravel: Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé
Franz Schubert, arr Osvaldo Golijov: She Was Here: Four Songs for Soprano and Orchestra

Dawn Upshaw (Soprano)
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Douglas Boyd (Conductor)

Deep in the center of the central northern plains of the United States lies a capital city with two singular virtues. First, Saint Paul has the best Kurdish restaurant in the whole country. Second, it has the best (in fact, the only full-time professional) chamber orchestra anywhere. It is also the only orchestra of its size which regularly “adopts” (my word) composers and performers to regularly write and perform. And after 50 years, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is one of the few ensembles which offers not only originality in music but which gives transparency, clarity and lucidity to virtually any music they play.

When they offered the suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella as their final work, it was like reading the score. That acid touch which Stravinsky coated on Pergolesi’s innocent was needle sharp, each extraneous note, each little dissonance a tiny jolt. jolt. The violin solos by Steven Copes were like witty comments on the orchestra. The penultimate Vivo movement had a scintilla of jazz by the solo basses and trombone, and the whole orchestra (about 30 players) gave a light pummeling to the finale.

But the Saint Paul people had no intention of simply closing the program with this classic. Prior to that was exactly the same idea—with different results in a work by the Argentine-European-Semitic-American composer Osvaldo Golijov. Where Stravinsky had gilded the lilies of a minor composer, Golijov was working with four songs by Franz Schubert, to be sung by Dawn Upshaw, in Shakespeare’s words, “the onlie true begetter” of Golijov’s music. Like Berio’s dream of Schubert’s 10th Symphony, these were more than arrangements. Golijov in She Was Here, had written a eulogy for a close friend who had passed on, so all four songs were dirge-like.

Supposedly, he had kept the vocal line, but this was difficult to tell, since the orchestration was so heavy and so varied in styles. The introduction to Wanderers nachtlied had the Ravel touch, with harps and strings in varied colors until Ms. Upshaw entered with those five repeated portentous notes. The Lied der Mignon was like a dream-song, with harp and celesta and strings. The song of the title, Dass sie hier gewessen could have been orchestrated by Brahms or Mahler, the full orchestra blatantly late 19th Century. In the climactic Nacht und Träume, the composer showed his mastery of orchestration. It starts with strings, followed by low horns and clarinets, triplets in the harp and pushing finally to a kind of syncopation which might have pleased Schubert, but was hardly part of the original.

Like all of Golijov’s work, it was masterful and congenial. And certainly personal.

Ms. Upshaw was challenged to even greater heights in seven songs all written just before the First World War—and all obvious heirs to Pierrot Lunaire. Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics were tiny haiku about spring, declaimed, disintegrating, trifles brought to light by Ms. Upshaw. The rare Poems of Balmont were almost as terse, but more lyrical.Ravel’s Mallarmé songs resembled little of the clever, contrived Ravel we know. They were partly dreamy , sometimes as formless as the poetry itself, and of course essayed by the soprano with absolute confidence.

The opener was another rarity, Dvorák’s Wind Quintet, conducted with verve by the Saint Paul’s Scottish conductor, Douglas Boyd. In Mozart’s time, these four movements might have been called a Cassation, since one pictured them being played in the village square of Nelahozeves, his Bohemian town. The four movements had little marches and dances, and were played with suitable lilting rhythms.

Harry Rolnick



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