Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Brings Stravinsky and Upshaw to Princeton

Nancy Plum

When one thinks of Minnesota’s Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, one usually thinks of top-notch strings playing the best of the chamber music repertory, especially from the Baroque and Classical periods. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which performed Saturday night at McCarter Theatre, still maintains the finest among string players but chose also to show off its winds in the bulk of the evening’s concert. Joined by renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, the ensemble focused its programming efforts on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially the music of Igor Stravinsky.

The orchestra has an unusual artistic leadership structure, with five Artistic Partners driving the vision of the organization. Two of these partners are Douglas Boyd, who conducted Saturday night’s performance, and Ms. Upshaw, who performed songs of Stravinsky, Ravel and Schubert. Ms. Upshaw, in addition to an esteemed career on the operatic stage, has a long history of championing contemporary music.

The Stravinsky songs presented Saturday night may have seemed like short vocal gumdrops on paper, but they required exacting concentration and technique from both singer and instrumental ensemble. Stravinsky scored Two Poems of Constantin Bal’mont for two flutes, two clarinets, piano and string quartet. The second of the two, “The Dove,” contained more complex orchestration, but both required a very calm and restrained vocal tone from the solo soprano. Ms. Upshaw changed her vocal tone to suit the text of each of the songs’ verses, with warmth matching the words when appropriate. Three Japanese Lyrics, composed by Stravinsky between 1912 and 1913, showed Ms. Upshaw always in the moment of the song, with excellent playing from the instruments, including flutist Julia Bogorad-Kogan and clarinetist Timothy Paradise.

Ms. Upshaw’s vocal style in Maurice Ravel’s Three Poems of Stephane Mallarme was drawn on a different style of singing than that in the Stravinsky songs, especially since the Ravel pieces were composed for a mezzo-soprano. The register was low for a soprano, but Ms. Upshaw’s ease of singing made it appear as though anyone could sing like her. Conductor Boyd kept the ensemble light and buoyant, providing an especially graceful ending to the second song, “Placet futile.”

The orchestra doubled in size for the second half of the concert, with Ms. Upshaw featured again in a unique orchestration of a set of Franz Schubert songs by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. The composer who was in the audience on Saturday night, brings an eclectic musical background and influences to his compositional style which includes Argentine tango and klezmer. He is studying in Jerusalem for a Ph.D. in composition supervised by George Crumb.

It was unclear how this composer/arranger became connected to Schubert, but the four songs he selected for orchestration were done so with a rich palette of colors. The first song, “Wandrers Nachtlied,” was one in a lower register, but Ms. Upshaw capitalized on the fact that one does not have to sing loud in the hall to show a wide range of expressive emotions. She sang with a particularly expressive tone on the second song, “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.”

Orchestrating these works gave the music more opportunity for give and take, fully taken advantage of by Mr. Boyd. As orchestrated, the music could also stop more abruptly than if played on a piano, an effect demonstrated at the close of the third song.

The concert began and ended with two works showing off the winds of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade in d minor showed immediate clarity of the wind playing, with the oboes speaking especially well. Principal oboist Kathryn Greenbank played a number of elegant solos during the evening, with a focused and bright tone which contrasted well to the more mellow sound of the second oboe. The success of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is in its ensemble sound, which was clearly evident in this four-movement Serenade.

The orchestra closed the concert with Stravinsky’s lively suite from Pulcinella, played crisply and cleanly. This suite is scored for ensemble with string quartet, and the first chairs of the string sections which made up the quartet effectively brought out the sweetness of the music. Concertmaster Steven Copes played an especially rich solo in the second movement “Serenata,” with a violin tone sounding almost like a viola. Mr. Boyd kept the movements flowing one into another, aided by subtle brass to complement the winds and strings.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will celebrate its 50th anniversary next season. Its unusual leadership model allows the ensemble to combine conductor and performer in determining the artistic direction of the orchestra, and as on Saturday night, this ensemble has always been a popular attraction in Princeton.

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