Former Artistic Partner Dawn Upshaw returned to Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra last weekend (heard Saturday night at Ordway Center in St. Paul) with mixed results. She sang the world premiere of a disappointing song cycle by Shawn Jaeger, “The Cold Pane,” which was an SPCO commission.

The cycle, setting poems by Jaeger’s fellow Kentuckian, the environmental activist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, was accompanied by violin, mandolin, clarinet and double bass. It opened with harsh pizzicato notes on the violin — an overly familiar world of dissonance.

The most lyrical moment was accompanied by violin, mandolin and bass used as percussion instruments. Moments of Appalachian folk music, played on the mandolin, only emphasized the overall lack of melody.

Upshaw made the best of her spiky vocal lines, but poor diction hurt her chances of getting across the poetry. But Jaeger was not very successful at conveying the texts’ meanings anyway.

After intermission, she returned a totally different artist, singing four selections from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” settings of German folk poetry. Her sprightly sound and the chamber forces were ideal for the playfulness of Mahler’s settings.

She displayed her skills as an actress playing both halves of a silly love duet. She added an air of tragedy to a young girl’s sending her love off to war and followed with a comic tour de force of a vocal contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale, judged by a donkey.

Though Upshaw’s artistic partnership at SPCO has ended, this kind of vocal performance will be welcome as often as we can hear her.

Mozart was only 16 when he wrote his Symphony No. 20, which opened the concert. It’s a charming work, but lightweight in comparison with his later masterpieces. Scott Yoo conducted with such exuberance that he lost his baton in the first movement. It was a winning performance.

The concert concluded with a rare performance of Schubert’s Second Symphony, written when he was only 17. He knew eight of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, but modeled this one on the symphonies of Haydn, for instance, using a minuet for the third movement, rather than Beethoven’s scherzo. He may have been influenced by his teacher, Mozart’s old rival, Antonio Salieri.

Yoo led a fast-paced, dramatic performance that brought the evening to a thrilling conclusion.


William Randall Beard writes about music.