Upshaw, Prutsman mix moods, tones, and genres

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2011

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For their Celebrity Series recital Friday evening, soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Stephen Prutsman presented a concert version of that paradigm of musical curation, the mixtape. Unlike the usual groupings by composer or language, this was a cabaret-like revue, crisscrossing the stylistic map. And, like any really good mixtape, the collection had both global coherence and local fascination.

The first half, 14 songs addressing love with varying directness (and performed without pause), combined an overall placid-to-fraught trajectory with incisive attention to song-to-song transitions, as when Gabriel Fauré’s “L’aube blanche,’’ a symbolic rose greeting the dawn, led into Robert Schumann’s “Die Lotosblume,’’ the lotus more equivocally blooming under moonlight.

The mood was mostly understated — tempos were often quite slow — but within that, Upshaw hit precise emotional marks: Resigned regret in John Dowland’s “Weep you no more, sad fountains’’ set off Hugo Wolf’s equally melancholy but subtly more restless “Die Bekehrte.’’ And sometimes links were purely musical; Wolf’s slow-rolling shepherd’s-pipe ostinato was promptly echoed in the sinuous opening to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “K ney.’’

Upshaw’s distinctive silver-flute timbre has filled out and deepened, though some idiosyncrasies were amplified: her tendency to anchor high notes with an initial straight-tone attack stretched to music-theater dimensions, once-expressive hints of breathiness now sometimes permeated the sound. But she smartly leveraged her strengths. Her diction remains a poet’s dream, every word caressed and cantilevered; songs with which she has a long history — the Rachmaninoff, or Osvaldo Golijov’s patiently luminous “Lúa descolorida’’ — enjoyed particularly rich shimmer. Prutsman started with a hard-edged tone that soon softened into calmer clarity, with particular aptitude for sustaining phrases through the predominantly unhurried pace.

The second half brought more pop-like singing, more straight tone, more portamento. It didn’t quite fit Claudio Monteverdi’s “Oblivion soave,’’ but in other nocturnes, it brought out vernacular resemblances: low, sultry expectation in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “White Moon’’ (beautifully unfurled beneath Prutsman’s icy high chiming); prototypical jazziness in the almost syncopal chromatic swerves of Peter Warlock’s “Sleep.’’

The program finished in crossover Broadway territory, which, oddly, proved far less successful. In Adam Guettel’s “Dividing Day’’ and Kurt Weill’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself’’ (the latter delivered with gonzo comic enthusiasm), the sound tipped into speechiness that sabotaged intonation and definition. But Upshaw restored elegant simplicity for the vintage-Broadway lines of Vernon Duke’s “The Love I Long For.’’ In the ballad’s final stanzas, the arrangement suddenly veered into an unmoored, impressionistic harmonic haze. There the concert ended, the emotion hanging, unresolved. With dramatic flair, the tape ran out.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Friday