Listen to Strauss, sip some Champagne, sing “Auld Lang Syne.” The New Year’s Eve concert is a long-standing tradition in classical music, and one that soprano Dawn Upshaw has long chosen to avoid.
It took Minnesota Orchestra artistic director Osmo Vänskä, a fellow former New Year’s abstainer, to persuade her it was finally time to put on a gown and entertain audiences on Dec. 31.
“I’m not a big party person,” Upshaw said, speaking by phone from her home in upstate New York. “For a long time, I kept my calendar completely free during the holidays. I usually like a quiet New Year’s, but I’m excited to see what this is like.”
Upshaw will sing American Songbook classics with the orchestra Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, at concerts that will also include an overture by composer Kevin Puts and Rachminoff’s luxuriant second symphony. Upshaw and Vänskä developed and debuted a similar program in Geneva, Switzerland, last year. The Minneapolis set list includes songs by Bernstein, Sondheim and Weill, so she’s hardly singing fluff. Still, performing any sort of show tunes feels like a departure for Upshaw, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner known for championing new music.
During the 1980s, Upshaw established herself as a top-tier soprano by shining in Mozart performances at the Metropolitan Opera. In more recent decades, she’s been hailed for debuting significant works by the likes of John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. But in 1999, Nonesuch released her disc of songs by Vernon Duke, featuring classics like “April in Paris,” and since then, she has gradually scaled back her opera engagements, expanded her teaching career (at Tanglewood and Bard College) and begun integrating more Golden Age show tunes into her concert dates.
“It is certainly not the repertoire that I’m usually singing with orchestras, but I’m very comfortable with it,” said Upshaw, who served as an artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2007 to 2013. “It’s what I thought I wanted to do when I first went to college, when I was imagining a musical theater career.”
It may be news to many opera buffs that Upshaw originally aspired to be a Tony winner rather than sing at La Scala. She grew up in suburban Chicago, the daughter of two avid amateur actors who once played a squabbling couple in a community theater production of “Company.” It wasn’t until college that Upshaw, now 56, was exposed to classical repertoire and changed course.
“We had a ton of Sondheim in the house, and Bernstein, and all sorts of jazz singers doing Gershwin,” the soprano recalled. She started auditioning for musicals in middle school, and played a younger daughter in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the lead in the now rarely staged “Little Mary Sunshine.” She was relegated to the ensemble, however, in high school productions of “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity.”
Now Tony and Maria’s ballad “Somewhere” is on her Orchestra Hall set list. “It’s the music of my teen years,” Upshaw said. “I’m coming back to it, in a way.”
Because she started out in musical theater, rather than beginning her classical training at a young age, Upshaw is uniquely qualified to sing familiar tunes like “Somewhere,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “A Little Bit in Love,” Vänskä says.
“Too many times, classical singers who are doing this kind of [more popular music] don’t understand that they have to use a different technique,” The conductor said. “It is fascinating for me to see that someone who is accustomed to filling great halls takes a microphone and knows exactly what to do.”
Upshaw’s 2017 engagements will mostly be in smaller venues. She’s booked a few recital dates, and will debut a new work by wunderkind singer/violinist/composer Caroline Shaw with the ensemble So Percussion.
“I am performing less, and very happily so,” Upshaw said. “I’m becoming more choosy, I’m slowing down, and enjoying the calm.”
Spacing out her gigs — and the fact that her children are older and no longer interested in hanging out with Mom on New Year’s Eve — made the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts much more appealing. So did Vänskä’s commitment to not putting on a Vienna-style New Year’s Eve show with lots of waltzes.
“The whole idea is that we try to give you something that is a great reason to come and listen to us,” Vänskä said. He’s well aware that millions of people around the world stay home and watch the Vienna Philharmonic, and doesn’t aspire to compete with something that might be a family tradition.
For the first time, the conductor spent Christmas not in Finland, but in the Twin Cities with all his children. Then he’ll head to rehearsals. It’s his third time conducting the Minnesota Orchestra on a New Year’s Eve, and he hopes to close out the year with good music that doesn’t sugarcoat what many artist types have deemed a rough 2016.
“I would like to have something that will give people a chance to smile, and to feel optimistic that next year will be better,” Vänskä said.
Who knows? Maybe Upshaw’s first-ever New Year’s concert will be the start of something good.