Last year, Dawn Upshaw, one of the most gifted singers in the world today, won a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the “genius grant.” Few in the world of classical music were surprised: Upshaw is not only a great opera soprano, but also a great discoverer and popularizer of little-known music, including her Grammy-winning recording of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Edward Gorecki’s immensely moving “Symphony #3,” and more recently, Osvaldo Golijov’s brilliant “Ayre,” which Upshaw and a supremely talented group of musicians performed at the Ojai Music Festival three years ago, thrilling the crowd.
But when asked how it felt to be proclaimed a genius to the world, Upshaw, speaking on the phone from her studio in New York, sounds ever-so-slightly embarrassed, insisting that “only the media” call it the genius grant, saying she was “totally shocked,” but laughingly admitting that “sometimes it’s useful with my children. When they’re not listening to me, I remind them that other people have called me a genius, believe it or not!”
Upshaw laughs easily, but without a trace of giddiness. If her children do ignore her, one suspects it’s not for long. In conversation she has the unshakeable calm one associates with pilots or surgeons or other authority figures trained not to display doubt. It’s no wonder she’s a soloist: At times she may feel pressure, but in performance she certainly doesn’t show it.
This has helped her in her career and, no doubt, in her life. The MacArthur grant, now worth $500,000, came at a good time for Upshaw, who had been out of the public eye after being diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer. She reports her treatments went well and the prognosis is good, and at this year’s Ojai Music Festival will sing a recital of “the songs she wanted to sing after chemotherapy” with her good friend and longtime pianist Gilbert Kalish. Upshaw is the headliner, and coming off sold-out performances at Town Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but insists Kalish is an equal partner — a collaborator, not an accompanist. He will play two pieces of his own choosing, the lushly melodic “Four Piano Blues” by Aaron Copland and an elegant Intermezzo by Brahms.
They will perform at Libbey Bowl on June 7, a program that will begin with a tune suggested by Kalish, “Beautiful Child of Song,” written by Stephen Foster in the early 19th century.
“Come, I am longing to hear thee,” opens the song, which alludes to yearning, to magic, to casting a spell, and to an unseen spirit. Upshaw likes to begin with this song because she thinks it’s more than a tune.
“It’s almost like an invocation of the spirit of song itself,” she said.
The program that follows is one probably only Upshaw could even imagine performing. The wildly diverse songs span cultures, eras and languages, beginning with an American portion rooted in popular songs of the 19th century, moving to a high-flying French portion, featuring the composers Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen, then on to a selection of German art songs from the likes of Schumann and Berg, concluding with cabaret songs by Kurt Weill and William Bolcom. She draws from the three records she has made but also sings a number of songs she has never recorded, including the mesmerizingly dark “Black Max.”
Probably there is no singer in the classical world today more willing to explore her limits than Upshaw, but this program (which she disarmingly calls “a hodgepodge”) offers a variety of moods likely to leave an audience astonished at her range — and perhaps a little stunned by the mix of emotions summoned up.
Despite a slowing economy and soaring gas prices, the Ojai Music Festival, now in its 62nd year, found a new prosperity this year. Festival officials say early ticket sales this spring have gone unusually well, unexpectedly better in the recent past. The festival even sold out its symposium panel discussion, a nonmusical event that at times in the past struggled to find an audience.
What explains this sudden popularity?
Partly, it’s a case of genius, plural. Besides Upshaw, who may be the most popular performer of recent years at Ojai, this year the symposium and the festival will feature Steve Reich, the man who more than any other composer shifted classical music in recent decades away from atonality toward a richer, simpler sound, using a technique known as phasing, which is repetitive but tonal. In his most famous piece, “Music for 18 Musicians,” pulses of melody are played gently but persistently on an unusual array of instruments, including marimbas. The pulses pass like sheets of warm rain over the listeners, fading into the background then beginning all over again, with a hypnotic effect.
“As one of the greatest living American composers, music enthusiasts can’t get enough of his work,” says marketing director Gina Gutierrez.
Reich is now considered a modern master and has won more awards, honors and complimentary degrees around the world than can possibly be listed in less than a page, but not so long ago he was considered an outrageous radical. Festival artistic director Tom Morris discussed “the checkered career” of one of Reich’s early works, the blunt, forceful “Four Organs,” which was premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall in l973. A riot erupted. One woman tried to stop the performance by banging on the stage with her shoe. Another woman at the concert was heard to scream, “All right — I’ll confess!”
“Four Organs” is one of four Reich compositions that will be performed on the opening night of the festival, June 5, by a modern music group named Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. It’s part of an all-Reich program that, in characteristic Ojai style, offers a thoughtful exploration of his entire career, beginning with an early piece called “Eight Lines,” from l970, moving on a later work called “Nagoya Marimba,” which uses the same phasing technique but with two marimbas, resulting in an extraordinary beauty, and concluding with his 2006 composition for voices, strings and rhythm instruments, “Daniel Variations,” which focuses on Daniel Pearl, the American reporter killed in Pakistan by Al-Qaida.
By chance, Reich met Pearl’s father, who loaned him some of the reporter’s notebooks. Pearl’s writings moved the composer, who set out to compose a piece in tribute, using both Pearl’s words and his instrument (Pearl played fiddle). Instead of finding meaning in complexity, Reich characteristically finds it in simplicity, in this case bringing out the depths in the reporter’s name, pulling us into his tragic story, and ending on a shocking note. A more moving introduction to Pearl’s life and the composer both would be difficult to imagine.
This Reich program, on Thursday night, is the bargain of the Libbey Bowl performances, with lawn tickets available for $15.
The Ojai Music Festival is a major event in the world of classical music, with performers, critics and even fans coming from far distances to attend the weekend festivities. This year the celebrities will include the New Yorker’s great young music critic Alex Ross, whose 2007 book on 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, ended up on many Top 10 books of the year lists. His symposium event is sold out, unfortunately, but one of the charms of the Ojai festival is its lack of pretension. Last year, the music director and great pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard mixed amiably with the crowd at the intermission of some performances. Chances are Ross, too, will be available in the crowd for a short chat, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Steve Reich himself, between performances, visiting with fans.
This is a big part of the charm of the festival. Yes, the setting is beautiful, and the weather lovely, usually; yes, you will hear music the likes of which you will not hear elsewhere, and a good deal of it will be heartbreakingly beautiful; and yes, the musicianship will be world-class. But most of all, performers, fans, critics and volunteers will, for one weekend a year, put all else aside. In the dusty Libbey Bowl, with its ancient stage, sagging benches, cracked pavement and well-worn lawn for a few days the distinctions between creators and admirers will fade away, and all involved will bask in the glow of a greater good — the music itself.
For more info, visit www.ojaifestival.org