Artistic Partner Dawn Upshaw took center stage again this week, as Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presented a Latin- and Spanish-inspired program, heard Thursday night at the Ordway Center. She premiered a song cycle, "La centinela y la paloma" ("The Keeper and the Dove"), by 2009 Latin Grammy winner Gabriella Frank and sang two pieces by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla.
It is rare for an orchestra concert to showcase three women. (There was also Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro.) This should not be such an unusual occurrence that it becomes worthy of note. But unfortunately it is.
Frank's cycle is the distillation of an opera-in-progress with a text by Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz. The setting is the Mexican festival Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead), where Catrina, the Keeper of souls, releases her spirits. One of them is the Dove of the title, internationally famed artist Frida Kahlo.
The work is keenly dramatic, from the eerie and ethereal conjuring of the spirit realm to Frida's sensuous and earthy evocation of life.
Upshaw delivered a committed performance, but lacked a degree of mystery as Catrina. And the cycle's tessitura lay a little high for her. Her voice had a tendency to turn white in the upper reaches.
She was more successful as Kahlo, anticipating the carnality of the physical world. The tragedy of her not being able to embrace her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, was movingly expressed in a devastating a cappella lament.
Diminutive Carneiro is a very physical conductor, emphatic and forceful, all elbows with her baton. She emphasized the theatricality of the music, giving it a genuine warmth and passion.
The concert opened with Mexican composer Enrico Chapela's "Li Po," based on a Mexican poem about a Chinese poet. The work for chamber orchestra and tape belongs to the international school of over-intellectualized contemporary music.
Upshaw was also in her element with the Falla. The cosmopolitan "Psyché" is a perfect chamber miniature. His "Seven Spanish Folksongs" (of which Upshaw sang five) elevates folk melodies to the level of art song. Carneiro and Upshaw captured the sensuality of the brief pieces.
As the finale, the orchestra made the most of Aaron Copland's deeply melodic signature sound in "Latin-American Sketches."
William Randall Beard writes frequently about music.