Since 1975, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has built a reputation for adventure. For this we can thank its longtime director, Richard Tognetti, whose eclectic programming has brought the orchestra back on its feet, lending every performance a dynamic edge that few chamber ensembles can match. For Friday’s performance at Bailey, which capped off a successful academic year for Cornell’s premier concert venue, the already phenomenal outfit was joined by soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose voice turned every word sung into a morsel of sonic caramel.
Yet before she even took the stage, I was overjoyed to discover that the ACO was to start us off on a bold foot with selections from George Crumb’s Black Angels. This work was something of a touchstone in my formative explorations of 20th century music, and to hear it live at last was thrilling. It may or may not have been the most perplexing facet of the concert for those unfamiliar with the opening blast of Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects. Horror fans will have recognized it from the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Yet as I imagine was clear from the reaction of Friday’s audience — which began with a few chuckles of surprise (mingling with some, like mine, of nostalgic recognition) and ended with sighs of wonder — Crumb’s sonic textures are less about fear and more about the music hidden in our shadows.
The Five Pieces for Strings of Anton Webern, into which selections from Black Angels were shuffled, may on paper seem a curious weave. Yet as pairings before — with Shostakovich, Fauré, Stravinsky, and, most profoundly, Bach — have shown, the young Darmstadter’s music lends itself to a wide range of company, whose works provide windows, if not mirrors, of interpretation. From the sinewy, ghostly chasms of the opening movement to the whispered conversations of the last, the Five Pieces strike a balance all their own.
In light of this startling prelude, Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, written for Upshaw, was like a massage after a grueling work week. For this Schneider drew on the poetry of Ted Kooser, whose unassuming Americana went down like sunset. Improvisation literally took center stage in the form of a jazz trio comprised of clarinet, bass and piano. The wintry whip of the air struck us in the opener as the trio folded itself into the orchestral batter — a mere taste of the confections to follow. Schneider’s mastery of her palette became evident in the second song, “When I Switched on a Light,” which evoked the fluttering of moths on the piano’s dampened strings. A similar panache was to be found in the swirls of “I Saw a Dust Devil This Morning” and later in the incessant gales of “Our Finch Feeder,” the latter describing a group of birds struggling against the wind in the name of sustenance. Yet it was the third, “Walking by Flashlight,” which was the evening’s highlight. This piece was cinematic to the utmost: an early-morning walk, animals peering out from the bushes at a protagonist who describes his circle of light on the ground as “the moon on a leash.” Lovely improvisations from pianist Frank Kimbrough made the experience all the more sweeping. From the first, one could see the concentration on Upshaw’s face as she attuned herself to every mood and image. Her unparalleled diction and deferential temperament broke the fourth wall and then some.
My inaugural encounter with Upshaw was through her benchmark Nonesuch recording of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The work remains a personal favorite, and I can only say that the unfettered pastoralism of Schneider’s settings inspired anew what I heard in that first listening. These sentiments flowed logically into the three German lieder that followed intermission. In Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Moonlight), Upshaw seemed to bind Heaven and Earth with the power of her voice, while the two songs by Franz Schubert — Geheines (Secret) and the notorious Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) — contrasted buoyant, flirtatious energy with the darkness of mortality. The latter’s low D rang soulful and true, ending the singer’s tenure for the night on a trail of liquid mercury.
In light of this, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) turned dusk into midnight. All the drama of a Wagner opera was compressed in this work for strings into a droplet of darkness falling in slow motion amid knots of evening cloud. In spite of the title, some of Schoenberg’s brightest writing can be found here, and its slow build from stasis into infinity is one of the defining transformations of modern music. The ACO gave it heartrending justice.
Tognetti and company bring a crisp and earthly sound to everything they lay a bow to, and during the encore they drew the shades on their fiery passions with a haunting rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s pensive tango, Oblivion. Yet it was Upshaw whose voice rang clearest in my mind as I left the hall. I couldn’t help but recall the words she sang in the final song of Schneider’s cycle: “This morning the sun stood / right at the end of the road / and waited for me.” So, too, did the shining, life-affirming star of her gift wait for us at the end of this long and winding season, embracing us warmly and with hope on an unseasonably cold evening.