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Talking with Dawn Upshaw, even on the telephone, is a musical experience. Her speech is melodious; her laugh deserves a Grammy.
The soprano, who last fall received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship ("genius grant"), begins a three-year artistic partnership with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this week, in the company of partner Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Q How does your partnership with the SPCO differ from a series of more conventional engagements?
A It's a huge honor to be given the freedom to do pretty much whatever I'd dream of doing with the ensemble. I hope I'll be adding some new color to the huge palette you're already experiencing with the SPCO. The partnership is a unique way of organizing and presenting concerts, and certainly it's a unique opportunity for me.
Q All the other SPCO partners have led the orchestra in some fashion -- from the podium, or from the keyboard, or with a violin bow. Is that something you're inclined to try?
A Not with my arms. But I move a lot when I sing, and I think that when there' s no conductor the players tune in to my body language in different ways than they do with a conductor in front of them. I like the way their listening shifts. I'm working on the repertoire for concerts in October that will involve some pieces without conductor.
Q Your inaugural program includes Ravel's "Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé" and Stravinsky's "Pribaoutki." Why did you choose them?
A I suggested the Ravel, which is a favorite of mine, along with some other Stravinsky, and then Monsieur Aimard came back with the idea of "Pribaoutki," which I've also done before. The Ravel has a certain subtle musical language that is so intimate, that requires real dedication by the players and a very careful act of listening, as any chamber music does -- as any music does. "Pribaoutki" -- the word means "witticism" -- is very short, four charming little songs in Russian.
Q You've sung in at least nine languages. How do you prepare to sing in a language that's relatively ...
A ... or completely unknown to me? I find a good coach, someone who speaks it as their first language, and I make the best of it. When I sang in Polish for the first time, I worked with a young man from Poland, recorded him and spoke back to him and sang back to him. I assume that I have a very strong accent in Polish, but I don't know. I do my best. Still, I think that the further away you are from your own language, the further you are from a deep, deep understanding of the text. That understanding is what every singer should be striving for, but in my experience it's never possible to come as close to that as you do in your mother tongue.
Q The MacArthur Foundation praised you for "forging a new model of a performer who is directly involved in the creation of contemporary music." How would you describe your career path?
A I feel that I've followed my instincts and interests, especially in the second half of my career, rather than travel a road that I think was available to me and was known to me. I began looking more for new music and special projects.
Q You've worked closely with Osvaldo Golijov, Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison and John Adams, among other composers. What is it about their music that attracts you?
A It's such a subjective response. What moves us in music? It's like asking what books we like, or what food. All these composers are very different from each other, musically and personally, but they all have very strong musical voices that speak clearly and distinctively to me, so that when I hear their music I'm drawn to it. There are times when I feel I understand someone's music pretty well and yet it doesn't move me. But with each of the composers you named I feel I'm learning about life or music or myself. I feel changed, and feel better for the change.
Q You're premiering a set of Schubert song arrangements by Golijov here in April and then taking it to Carnegie Hall. Why commission arrangements rather than a wholly new work by Golijov?
A Partly it came out of conversations I've had with him about Schubert. I've known almost since I met him about his love of Schubert and about Schubert's place in his musical upbringing. So I thought the project might excite him, and I was right.
Q It's widely known that you're recovering from breast cancer. How are you feeling?
A I'm feeling good, thank you. The prognosis is very good. I'm done with surgeries and treatments for now. So it's onward!
Q You've spoken in other interviews of the healing power of music. I can't help wondering if music has played a role in your recovery.
A I would assume so, though I can't say exactly how. I certainly believe that music has tremendous healing powers. Someone asked me about this recently, and I realized I'd been listening to a lot of Bach in particular. I don't know why, but I was swimming in Bach for a while.
Q Is there a desert-island disc you'd care to mention?
A I listened often to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of Bach's cantata "Ich habe genug" ("I Have Enough"), especially the aria "Schlummert ein" ("Fall Asleep"). It happens to be a glorious piece, but it's also an extraordinary performance -- one that is blessed, and that blesses us.
Q What do you hope to achieve during your time here?
A Joy and beauty are my goals. That's not to ignore pain -- it's important to acknowledge all the difficulties and misfortunes we have and others have. And there is beauty in pain sometimes, musically speaking. But I think joy and beauty are goals we all share.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.