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MUSIC REVIEW : Upshaw Sings Debut Recital at Ambassador

January 20, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Dawn Upshaw, who inaugurated the Gold Medal Vocal Series at Ambassador Auditorium on Monday, is pretty, sweet-voiced, slightly--endearingly--gawky, and, at 27, still young. She also happens to be tremendously talented.

She attracted attention here last November when her ethereal benediction floated above the massive orchestra and chorus in the finale of Zubin Mehta's performance of the Mahler Second.

At the Metropolitan Opera, she is slowly, cautiously, making the transition from comprimaria to diva. The masses have yet to memorize her name. Among cognoscenti, however, she already is regarded as a rara avis--a songbird, that is, blessed with brains.

Her voice certainly isn't large. Given the right repertory and the right technique, that need not be a problem. Upshaw--like such illustrious predecessors as Elisabeth Schumann, Bidu Sayao and Kathleen Battle--knows that a well-focused, unforced, pinpoint tone can make an impact in the wide-open spaces.

Purity, sometimes, is more important than power.

She arrived at the Ambassador reportedly suffering from jet lag and a cold. That may explain why her trusty accompanist kept handing her a glass of water during the first half of the evening. It may also explain her breathiness of the lower register and her difficulty sustaining a propulsive legato.

Even under less than ideal conditions, however, she revealed herself as a sensitive artist. For her get-acquainted program, she could have offered vocal bonbons and hum-along arias. Instead she concentrated on a sophisticated, uncompromisingly serious, slightly esoteric survey of the intimate art song.

The survey, which deviated considerably from the promised agenda, began with five Lieder of Mozart. The charm here was delivered with poise, wit and welcome understatement. In four melodies of Chausson, Upshaw used innocence of expression and the conversational whisper to insinuate sensuality. Seven Schumann songs revealed her sound romantic inclinations and narrative gifts, even if the sentiment tended toward the superficial.

After intermission came the bleak, economical eloquence of Prokofiev's five-part cycle, Opus 27, set to poems of Anna Akhmatova. A bit more vocal weight and color might have heightened the dramatic impact here, but Upshaw's finely etched, gentle performance offered its own kind of logic.

Seven fascinating settings of poems by Emily Dickinson closed the recital with crisp accents of American nostalgia. Juxtaposing dissimilar but surprisingly complementary music of Aaron Copland, Louise Talma, Juliana Hall, George Walker, George Perle and Arthur Farwell, Upshaw sang gently, with simplicity and unerring pathos. She also sang with a clarity of diction that made her introductory recitation of the texts superfluous.

In response to polite applause, she added a single encore, Charles Ives' "The World's Highway."

Margo Garrett served as Upshaw's exceptionally alert, sympathetic collaborator at the piano.

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