Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Une rose à la bouche

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Dawn Upshaw, The Girl With Orange Lips. I hadn't quite forgotten this record, but I think I had forgotten that it was this shimmering, hypnotic collection of perfectly wrought Orientalist miniatures that introduced me to America's greatest living singer. I've come so far since with Upshaw--whose interpretations of composers as wide-ranging as Blitzstein, Crumb, Golijov, Barber, Adams, and Ives I've come to cherish--and I now think of her as such a quintessentially down-to-earth, hard-working American genius, that it had altogether slipped my mind what a stark and sensuous, and yes, exotic first impression she made on me with this record.

It came out in 1991, and fortuitously coincided with my own growing interest in early-20th-century French music, a strong strain of which includes what might be called musical chinoiserie, with its explorations of pentatonic and modal scales and its often open citation of Near and Far Eastern themes and subjects. As with a lot of 20th-century primitivism, this aesthetic has its problematic aspects, but one of Upshaw's remarkable feats here is to string together an utterly convincing program of pieces linked at least partly by the poetry that inspired them, and also by a kind of interlaced cultural entente: Alongside "Where Grief Slumbers," a seven-song cycle of Apollinaire and Rimbaud settings by the Korean-American composer Earl Kim, are Stravinsky's settings of two Japanese lyrics, Delage's settings of four Hindu poems, and so on.

It's easy to get lulled into a kind of green-swarded reverie by this record, with its spare, shuddering chamber music arrangements and Upshaw's bright, clear bird-of-paradise voice cutting a clear swath through the foliage. It's a false security, though, for the piercing moments of drama--many of them strikingly a cappella, as in Kim's harrowing "Ophelia"--manage to hit all the harder amid the twilit solitude. In short, as an intro to Upshaw's greatness or simply on its own seductive terms, I can't recommend this dream of a record highly enough.

Note: There are no available videos to embed, but it looks like you can sample the record here.

Kerry Reid Her recording of Blitzstein's "I Wish It So" gets me weeping. Every time. And it makes me wonder why no one ever thinks to do a full production of "Juno," for that matter.
Rob Weinert-Kendt I'm kicking myself that I missed this:
Pamela Renner Upshaw singing Golijov is quite a thrill. I will have to check out this pick. Also I'd recommend to you the work of Monserat Figueras with Jordi Savall.

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