First the good news: someone had the incredibly intelligent idea of placing a
microphone and stand on the platform so that the entire audience would be able
to hear Upshaw's spoken commentary, even though that consisted mostly of
program changes. I always wished Alice Tully had been similarly fitted out
for Ameling's and Soderstrom's chattier performances.
Now the bad news: the concert was intolerable. I must confess that I never
quite got Upshaw's huge success, be it as the ersatz Battle of the late
eighties or as the artsy-fartsy anti-diva of more recent memory. I'm still
My problems with Upshaw begin with her almost constant refusal to *sing.*
Sunday's recital offered some of the toothpaste tube squeezed tone which so
enchants people who hate opera, as well as several variations on the theme of
crooning. The middle has no body and doesn't project, the bottom sounds like
a bad imitation of late Anna Moffo, and the top sets my teeth on edge. In one
song (Schubert's "Der Musensohn"), she actually did sing out -- which means
that, for some inexplicable reason, she *wants* to make the sounds she makes.
The voice is singularly colorless, her diction iffy, and her languages poor.
Intonation seems admirable in modern pieces, dubious in Schubert (especially
at the top.) She also prefers to substitute choreography for expression,
something I particularly loathe.
I also found something patronizing in her manner. Her spoken comments
recalled Barbra Streisand's mannered concert patter, and nowhere did I get the
feeling that she cared about getting the less accessible items on her program
across to the audience (some of whom she lost at intermission.) Opening a
program with a group of Ives' nasty little songs is not the best way to
ingratiate oneself with an audience, especially when one is coy rather than
charming. There are ways to put across difficult programs, but they seem to
be beyond Upshaw's capabilities.
After the icky Ives, Upshaw took on Strauss' Ophelia-Lieder, the results
recalling the Knusperhexe after taking a breath of helium. Among her other
defects, she cannot communicate the structure of a song: everything meanders
and everything sounds the same. Even the greatest musician in the world
couldn't make anything shapely out of Harbison's Mirabai Songs, which followed
the Strauss and included impossible lines like "I praise the Mountain Energy
night and day." Curiously, Upshaw gave the impression of believing in this
piece of middlebrow claptrap. The audience wasn't fooled.
The off-program Schubert which opened the second half (Upshaw re-arranged the
program due to allergies -- the Strauss songs were to have been here, but they
were used to replace a group of Griffes songs which were probably packed with
high D-flats in the first half) did please the audience. I don't know why,
unless they were reacting to hearing something with a tune to it... Three
Rachmaninoff songs, sung in gibberish, rounded out the program.
Two encores: Bolcom's "Wait" (at which the audience didn't know whether to
s**t or go blind) and Ives' (oh goody, more Ives!) "Memories," which seems a
dumb choice for someone who can't whistle. (The whistling was supplied by
accompanist Gilbert Kalish, who played with lovely tone and in the same self-
indulgent spirit as his singer.)
Mark D. Guenette