Dawn Upshaw can hardly believe that her six-year stint as an artistic partner at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concludes next weekend.
“It felt like a handful of concerts, even though it was 18,” she said from her suburban New York home. “It’s sad that it feels over too soon, but life is like that.”
The celebrated soprano, a Grammy winner and vigorous champion of new music, will sing selections by Maurice Ravel and George Crumb in three concerts at SPCO neighborhood venues.
The moment is particularly bittersweet for her because an anticipated premiere of a commission from composer Shawn Jaeger, an Upshaw colleague at Bard College Conservatory, had to be shelved because of the recently concluded lockout of musicians. The piece will be rescheduled.
Upshaw helped bring six world premieres to the SPCO, and sang with the ensemble on two trips to Carnegie Hall. Her commission of Maria Schneider’s “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories” became part of Schneider’s album “Winter Morning Walks.”
Upshaw admitted that doing interviews is not her favorite thing because “I feel like I end up saying the tritest things.” But she was gracious and anything but trite in our conversation.
Q Does it sting to have been affected by the struggles of the classical music world?
A I’m glad you speak about it in a broader sense. I do feel it’s a challenge and a struggle that is not unique to the SPCO. Like any moment when one is right in the middle of it, it’s hard to gain objectivity and see and envision what the changes will bring. I feel similarly in outlook to when the recording business started to fall apart. What that has in common is a need for change that will need to be addressed. It has, but I get the sense there is more to come.
Q Do you have any answers?
A Just to be very attentive. I’m actually trying for myself to always learn as much as I can from the younger generation. I teach and I’m amazed at all that is exploding in terms of online services and possibilities and media. Change is hard and we’re in the middle of it.
Q When you became an artistic partner, you said you wanted to bring “joy and beauty” to the SPCO.
A (Laughing) I’m sorry I’m laughing. That’s like the “Miss America” pageant. “I want world peace.” Hopefully I said more than that.
Q No, that was the whole deal. But what moments brought you joy?
A Exploring new music was a highlight for me. And to have the opportunity to program some intimate chamber music with such wonderful players. But going back to “the joy and the beauty,” what I was trying to express was the need in any community for this opportunity to go to a concert and learn something about oneself and life. And that sounds again like Miss America. But I didn’t want to repeat music that’s been sung a gazillion times and to try to sing as prettily for people as I could. That was not of interest. Something of meaning was more interesting.
Q Was the Maria Schneider collaboration a high point?
A Definitely. And also Minnesota’s own, in Maria. And that not only was something that really worked but sparked a new collaboration for me and Maria with further projects after it. Of all the new commissioned works, that’s the one that stands out.
Q Say something about your passion about new music.
A I want to live in the music that’s written around me, in my own time. I’m in awe of many old pieces, but I find I feel more alive with new music. It’s like having a conversation with a living human being. I feel more engaged in life when I’m doing new music.
Q Do you have favorite dead composers?
A Bach is in my life in a big way. I don’t perform as much Bach anymore, but I listen to it. Bach and Mozart is the earliest music I’m engaged in. Then there’s a big gap and I’d say later 19th century and 20th century. I just did a recital with Gilbert Kalish, the pianist, and we gave a lot of time to Schubert. I’ve sung Schubert but not for many years and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve missed all this in the past five years.”
Q What will you miss here?
A Singing for that audience. There is not an audience like that. I really do get a sense that this has been built on an idea of reaching out to the community. I did my first round of community concerts last year, and I loved it. In a way, through this difficult year, I wondered if there is a way to get back to doing even more of that with the community. As much as I love singing at the Ordway, I’m really happy that my last week as artistic partner will be in community concerts.
Q Are you going to come back?
A I hope so. I guess I need to be invited. But I will make it clear that I would love to do that.