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For Dawn Upshaw, 'Winds of Destiny' lead to Ojai

The celebrated soprano will perform George Crumb's work at the Ojai Music Festival, along with 'Winter Morning Walks,' an orchestral work by Maria Schneider.

June 05, 2011|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Working with Sellars, Upshaw says, has constituted the most arduous and rewarding journey of her musical life. "Peter has this uncanny ability to know what my personal struggles are in any given moment," she says. "He gives directives that are a direct hit on some huge dilemma in my life at the moment."

Could she offer some examples? "That I can speak about?" she asks with an unsteady laugh. After a long pause, she offers, "It's really too personal, the examples that are coming to my mind. But it does happen. Peter wants to get to this truth that is scary. He creates a safe place to really dig deep, and then he goes there. He sees the scars. It's not that he's taking advantage of me. He helps connect me to truth in a moment."

For his part, Sellars downplays his influence. "Dawn's depth of musicality is always astonishing," he says during a phone interview. "You feel everything that she's feeling comes right from her. When she's in Messiaen or Handel or Osvaldo Golijov, you're having an experience of such immediacy and depth of conviction that you think a human being is just opening themselves up with the most daring level of honesty."

"The Winds of Destiny" is a chapter in Crumb's "American Songbook," a Melvillian novel of music written for voice, percussion and prepared piano that entwines Native American songs, African slave spirituals and Civil War folk songs, including "Shenandoah" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." In the stark piece, Sellars offers, "You sense that the Civil War is still going on. You sense the violence and virulence of our public atmosphere today, of the country tearing itself apart."

While "The Winds of Destiny" may expose the civil war inside Upshaw, her listeners and America itself, the soprano will show off her pastoral side in her other major commission, "Winter Morning Walks," an orchestral work by New York jazz composer Maria Schneider. Upshaw says she has been "nuts about Maria" ever since she heard Schneider's 2004 album, "Concert in the Garden," a jubilant ballet of Brazilian jazz that won a Grammy Award.

Schneider, who grew up in rural Minnesota, found inspiration for "Winter Morning Walks," a set of songs, in a book of poems by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser. The former U.S. poet laureate wrote the poems, pungent with small-town imagery, when he was being treated for cancer and took predawn walks, on doctor's orders, to stay out of the sun.

"The poems have a simple beauty — so clear and pure," Schneider says during an interview in her New York apartment. "To me, Dawn has that same kind of accessibility, clarity, that deep quality of Midwestern heart."

For the Ojai festival, Upshaw says, she is delighted to have the light in Schneider's music (Schneider's jazz orchestra also performs) to balance the dark in Crumb's. "I hear so much nature in Maria's music. So much beauty, so much heart, so much joy, but also so many colors and levels in the orchestration." Many hues in between will be heard in the festival, in Purcell's Baroque songs and Bartok's Hungarian folk tunes, Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata and Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night."

Excitedly anticipating her performances in Ojai, and looking back at a year of planning them, Upshaw says the festival represents a wonderful culmination of her career. At the same time, a note of stress creeps into her voice.

"I don't ever see my work as finished," she says. "I am always interested in the process and how far I can get to that 100% of truth and focus and concentration." It's true, she admits, that now, as she's grown older, "I think I'm nicer to myself. But I don't feel self-satisfaction or settled. I certainly don't feel, 'Ah, I can relax now.'"

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