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
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
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
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,
And you’d have done better with a winter
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your
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.