In New Works, The Art of the Voice Reaches a Summit

United StatesUnited States  Resonant Bodies Festival I: Tony Arnold, Dawn Upshaw, and Lucy Shelton (sopranos), Merkin Concert Hall, New York City. 9.9.2015 (BH)

Tony Arnold, soprano
Jacob Greenberg, piano
Beat Furrer : Lotófagos (2006)
Anton Webern : Wie bin ich froh! , Op. 25, No. 1; Ja Heil und Dank dir , Op. 4, No. 3;
Gleich und gleich , Op. 12, No. 4
György Kurtág : Requiem for the Beloved (1987)
Jason Eckardt : “Dithyramb” from Tongues (2001)
David Liptak : “Beauty and the Beast” from Dove Songs (2013, NYC premiere)
Fredrick Gifford : from 100 Not-Songs for JOHN CAGE (2012, world premiere)
George Crumb : “In the Forest of Clocks” from The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (2014, New York premiere)
Thomas Adès : Life Story (1993)

Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Gilbert Kalish, piano
Contemporaneous: Vicente Alexim (clarinet), Colin David (mandolin), Wyatt Underhill (violin), Pat Swoboda (double bass), David Bloom (conductor)
Sheila Silver : On Loving: Three Songs for Diane Kalish, in memoriam (2011-2015, world premiere, new version)
Shawn Jaeger: The Cold Pane (2013)

Lucy Shelton, soprano
Carlos Cordeiro, clarinet
Meaghan Burke, cello
Charles Hagaman, electronics
James Yannatos : Hope is the thing with feathers (1979)
Richard Festinger : Cummings Settings (2015, world premiere)
Elliott Carter : La Musique (2007)
Icli Zitella : Animalia: a litany for extinct bird species (2015, world premiere)
Tom Flaherty : When Time Was Young (2003)
Susan Botti: “Listen, my heart” from Bird Songs (2015, world premiere)
John Chowning : Voices (v. 3) (2011)
Eric Nathan : Soul Perching (2015, world premiere)

With all due respect to those who play other instruments, it is tempting to say that there is no more versatile tool than the human voice. For the opening night of the Resonant Bodies Festival, director Lucy Dhegrae miraculously brought together three of the 21st century’s most distinctive singerswho may likely never be seen onstage together againand invited each of them to curate a 45-minute set, resulting in three disparate segments.

Tony Arnold, a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), has a talent for choosing difficult works, sometimes constructed from language’s tiniest building blocks. Whether in the syllabic puffs of smoke that make Beat Furrer’s Lotófagos so intriguing, or in the infernal accents of Frederick Gifford’s 100 Not-Songs for JOHN CAGE , she has a knack for examining texts with a lens and exposing their skeletons. This reached an apex in Jason Eckardt’s “Dithyramb,” a virtuosic explosion of gasps, hiccups, cackles, and inhalations, and as Arnold ended the demanding terrain, the friend with me whispered, “And not even a drink of water.”

But Arnold’s eclectic ear also encompasses gentle lyricism like David Liptak’s “Beauty and the Beast” from Dove Songs , and George Crumb’s delicate, mysterious “In the Forest of Clocks” from The Yellow Moon of Andalusia . Her gaze also lit up three gems from Anton Webern, and György Kurtág’s Requiem for the Beloved , all with the agile and alert keyboard work of pianist Jacob Greenberg.

Her daring final move was Life Story , by Thomas Adès, using text by Tennessee Williams. With Randall Zeigler on double bass, plus Gleb Kanasevich and Michael Norsworthy on bass clarinets, the quartet evoked an unnervingly strange jazz club, where relationships are pitilessly dissected. The work ended with Arnold’s dry commentary, “…that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.”

Until this evening, I thought I might never hear Dawn Upshaw sing again. Few major singers have done as much to champion legions of living composers, and she has triumphed in unusual repertoire at the world’s great opera houses: I treasure her exacting work in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Met. Meanwhile, she has quietly begun to inspire a new generation of singers, notably by serving as Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Program at Bard College, and in a similar capacity at Tanglewood Music Center. And along with Arnold and Lucy Shelton, she is a member of the Resonant Bodies Artistic Advisory Board.

True to form, she chose two world premieres, starting with On Loving: Three Songs for Diane Kalish, in memoriam, a tribute by Sheila Silver to Gilbert Kalish’s wife, who died in 2011. With Kalish at the piano, Upshaw showed her characteristic sensitivity in moving texts by Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Kahlil Gibran. In the latter’s “Love is a magic ray,” Upshaw’s voice soared in a shimmering reminder to let grief be tempered with images of beauty and depth. And though time may have gently trimmed her range, Upshaw sounded remarkably focused and vital. She maintains a rare, communicative warmth and empathy for new music.

Shawn Jaeger’s cycle, The Cold Pane , draws on an unusually thoughtful quintet of poems by Wendell Berry, set in motion by the composer’s often subtle effects. In “Raindrops,” pianissimo clicking and tapping, coupled with asymmetrical rhythmic patterns, showed uncanny skill in evoking water falling on a tin roof. Upshaw’s lustrous instrument was delicately framed by members of Contemporaneous, adroitly led by conductor David Bloom.

And finally came veteran new-music beacon Lucy Shelton, in a slate of works written for her with four world premieres, loosely focusing on birds. Whether subtly channeling Cathy Berberian in James Yannatos’s Hope is the thing with feathers , or luxuriating in the strains of Elliott Carter’s La Musique, Shelton had the composure of a master. She found resonance in Richard Festinger’s gentle Cummings Settings , and the joyous dancing of Tom Flaherty’s When Time Was Young , but then changed her tone completely for the guttural consonants in Icli Zitella’s Animalia: a litany for extinct bird species , and Susan Botti’s percussion-graced “Listen, my heart” from Bird Songs . Her astute co-pilots along the way were Carlos Cordeiro on clarinet, and Meaghan Burke on cello.

Composer John Chowning has called Shelton “a national treasure,” and as if to prove it, her set reached its climax in the latest version of his Voices, its texts based on the oracle of Pythia at Delphi. With the electronics wizardry of Charles Hagaman altering her utterances in real time, Shelton’s resonance circulated throughout the room, drawing the audience into a world of antiquity, yet hypnotically articulated by contemporary technology.

One more surprise was in store, in Eric Nathan’s bird-infused Soul Perching. For the final “Canon for Three,” Arnold and Upshaw walked up the aisles to join Shelton onstage, ending in a rhapsodic cloud of billing and cooing, quietly bringing this soprano summit to a close.

Bruce Hodges

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