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Seen and Heard International Concert Review




Bartok, Harbison, Bernstein: Dawn Upshaw, Soprano, New York Philharmonic, Robert Spano, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 25.2.2006 (BH)



Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114 (1936)

Harbison: Miłosz Songs (2005) (World premiere – New York Philharmonic Commission)

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961)



One of Dawn Upshaw’s first and most memorable recordings features John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, in a program with Barber, Menotti and Stravinsky, and now Harbison has written a striking new cycle for her with texts by Czech poet Czesław Miłosz.  Harbison places a small concertino right up in front of the orchestra – three flutes, celesta, harp and vibraphone – that offers its own glistening commentary on the larger ensemble.  Harbison sees them as “satellites revolving around the path of the singer.” 

A glowing celesta begins the first of the eleven sections of Miłosz Songs, starting with a delicate Lauda:


And now we are joined in a ritual.

In amber? In crystal? We make music.

Neither what once was not what ever will be.

Only what persists when the world is over.

The poems are short and stark, such as the final stanzas of You Who Wronged, possibly about someone who has gotten away with murder:


Do not feel safe.  The poet remembers.

You can kill one, but another is born.

The words are written down, the deed, the date.


And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,

A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

Each poem is thoughtfully written for the voice, with the ensemble in glittering, mostly gentle accompaniment that often belies the somber texts.  High points on first hearing included the sixth, What Once Was Great, with the huge opening in high contrast with the strings, flute and harp softly dying out in its haunting close, and the seventh, So Little, with its mysterious pizzicati tapping, tapping, tapping, as if waking the singer from a dream. 

Upshaw’s naturalness was a mellow foil for Harbison’s sometimes intricate, percussion-pebbled sound world.  At this point their collaborations have an ease and naturalness that is most seductive.  With conductor Robert Spano awash in confidence, the orchestra made the most of Harbison’s colors – gorgeous, often delicate and not particularly harsh or overly experimental – and if there is any justice this shimmering cycle will appear again.  It is exciting to see the Philharmonic conjure up a commission as strong as this one, and I only wish my schedule had enabled a second hearing.

To open the program, Spano offered Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, with a marvel of a crescendo in the tense first movement.  The title Andante tranquilo is rather deceptive, since the inexorable climb has the tranquility of someone who is sleepwalking toward disaster.  The taut pizzicati in the Allegro had the bite of a jazz band, and the moonlit Adagio was serene with no syrup.  The orchestra reveled in the elation of the final movement, and with Bartók in masterful control of its irregular meters, Spano and the orchestra managed to serve it up with waves of brittle energy.

Bernstein extracted nine sections from West Side Story to create the Symphonic Dances, a tightly organized sampler of the most memorable parts of the score, and Spano’s relaxed swagger served the piece very well.  Bernstein’s now-classic recording with the Philharmonic is even faster, with more rhythmic snap, but there is plenty of room for a more congenial reading like this one.  The orchestra’s playing was precise, with tenderness in “Somewhere” and the “Love Music” finale, but as tightly organized as it gets in the penultimate “Rumble.”  And I could only smile thinking of the theatrical Bernstein, knowing full well how to get an audience to relax and smile in the concert hall, asking the orchestra to chime in with finger-snapping and shouts of “Mambo!” at the appropriate moments. 



Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)