Broadway – Rue du Rhône: Osmo Vänska and Dawn Upshaw in Geneva

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bernstein, Weill, Duke, Gershwin, Sondheim, Rachmaninov: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Victoria Hall, Geneva, 13.01.15 (AL)

Leonard Bernstein: “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town”
Kurt Weil: “My Ship”
Vernon Duke: “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” “The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull”
Bernstein: “Somewhere,” “A Little Bit in Love”
George Gershwin: “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Stephen Sondheim: “What More Do I Need,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets”
Serge Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

This concert was the traditional New Year gala with the Swiss Romande Orchestra. As is the tradition, Victoria Hall was decorated with flowers, and there was an unusual number of sponsors in the audience. Many were the object of stern looks by the aficionados when they applauded between movements and made a somewhat quick exit at the end for the upcoming cocktail party.

Dawn Upshaw has not really performed in Geneva. She did a couple of lieder recitals in the 1990s but has not built a presence as she has, say, in Paris. She was always better known for her artistry than for creamy high notes, so asking her to sing Broadway tunes seemed on paper like a good idea.

The result turned out to be a mixed blessing. There were many things to appreciate in her performance. The phrasing was lovely, her middle notes still have a special ring, words were very clear (amplification was used) and her characterization of the various songs was done with care. Osmo Vänska was careful to maintain a good balance with the singer. Finally, the decision to mix classics like Bernstein’s “Somewhere” with lesser-known works like the Duke songs was inspired.

But something was missing. Upshaw’s performance lacked a certain theatrical element, the sort of quality that allows singers ̶ crooners ̶ to create a special link with the audience and thus capture not only their brains but their hearts. There was plenty of artistry but one wanted a bit of glitz and panache.
Such a Broadway program may have surprised the stern Swiss audience, and I heard a few complain about crossovers. Many felt that the program in the second half was what one expects in a concert hall.
And what a second half this was. Last year, Osmo Vänska stepped in for a sick Neeme Järvi and conducted Nielsen’s 4th Symphony in a stunning performance that left many wishing … he would stay in Switzerland and not return to Minnesota. (Neeme Järvi only stepped in as principal conductor when Marek Janowski, who had done a lot to build the orchestra, stepped down abruptly).

His reading of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was equally special. Vänska did not care for the brooding and somewhat backward looking Rachmaninoff: this was a dramatic reading with crisp rhythms, plenty of drive and no misplaced sentimentality. He drew a muscular sound from the orchestra and there were some strong contributions from the musicians, in particular flutist Sarah Rumer and Jean-Pierre Berry on the horn. One could really sense a keen involvement by the musicians. One felt ̶ and it is unusual ̶ that in the right work and in the right hand, there is a glimpse of some modernism in Rachmaninoff.

The glitzy audience seemed eager to move on to cocktails, but a core number of listeners stayed to get Vänska once more on the podium. He is back in Minnesota which is great for them, but I am sure for many he is a very welcome guest in Geneva.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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