Any musician will have a special rapport with music from his or her homeland (two memorable examples from earlier this season: the half-Russian Bridge Ensemble's premiere of a Giya Kancheli quartet, and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's blazing Tchaikovsky). This we take for granted, with one exception—it's still a little rare, a little surprising, for an American classical performer to specialize in American music. The very term is loaded; we don't think of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for example, as a "specialist" in Brahms or Beethoven.
Brechemin Auditorium, April 15
Benaroya Hall, April 16
Northwest Symphony Orchestra
Highline Performing Arts Center, April 17
Last weekend, three concerts in three different musical media gave primacy to American music, a notable occurrence. Pianist Jeffrey Gilliam came down from Western Washington University with an ambitious program—the smallest and lightest work was Alban Berg's op.1 Sonata. Gilliam sounded a bit staid here, but probably no performance of this art nouveau hothouse orchid could ever be too languorous. (Actually, with its swooning lines and contrapuntal complexity, this sonata seems more like a string quartet in disguise.)
For a piece by an Eastman graduate, which in the '50s was Americana Central for composers, George Walker's 1953 Sonata no.1 turned out to be surprisingly Berglike, similarly curvy and chromatic. You'd search in vain for overt Americanisms here, except for a few proclamatory gestures and the Kentucky folk song used as the theme for the second-movement variations. Frederic Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues also borrowed from the vernacular; this tour de force wove an old labor protest song into a thundering opening toccata that turned forearm clusters into the relentless clatter of factory machinery. A quieter gospel-blues section rose to another all-over-the-keyboard climax. Gilliam handled it all brilliantly.
The second half of his recital was devoted to that summit of American pianism, Ives' Concord Sonata. In the work's four movements, "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts," and "Thoreau," he transmuted New England transcendentalism into ecstatic, ear-opening fistfuls of sound. Into this torrent, Ives also stirred bits of hymn tunes, oompah marches, and Beethoven—the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, for Ives a symbol of "Fate," stride portentously through the entire work. In some spots, the sonata makes demands greater even than one piano can handle—Ives wrote in optional counter-melodies for flute (played hauntingly from the back of the hall by Felix Skowronek) and viola (played on the piano by Gilliam's page turner Margaret Brink, deftly staying out of Gilliam's way). The emotional power of the Concord, and the triumphantly idealistic difficulties it presents to hands, ears, and brain, remains after all these decades a crushing rebuke to today's preachers of compositional "accessibility." Gilliam made the work sound like it should, and no higher praise can be given him.
For her first Seattle appearance ever, soprano Dawn Upshaw brought two newborns, works she and pianist Gilbert Kalish had premiered just the previous week. In his cycle Holy the Firm, composer James Primosch gave Upshaw airborne phrases that cherished every vowel, and Kalish, a sparkling, fragmented accompaniment with a little of the flexibility of improvisation. They also performed just one short, gorgeous song by Osvaldo Golijov, "La descolorida," a piece with simple and serene harmonies somewhere in the vicinity of the slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. (I've kept a sharp eye out for Golijov's music ever since the Seattle Chamber Players' thrilling performance of his The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, one of the concert highlights of last year.) Both partners gave greatly persuasive and sensitive performances of all these.
"Natural" is not quite the word for Upshaw's interpretive style—she clearly relishes the chance to act a role, whether the pensive lovers in her Mozart set or the whimsically anthropomorphized animals in Ravel's Histoires naturelles. A better word is "direct"; there's simply no barrier between the listener and the composer's message. Which in Olivier Messiaen's case is a complex one, a devout and mystical Catholicism vibrating with sensuality and drama. Messiaen's cocktail-piano harmonies and bird-call ornaments are a potent mix and spurred Upshaw in this set of four songs to climaxes of white-hot rapture.
She can also sing classic American pop better than any diva I've ever heard. To close her recital, she chose three Vernon Duke songs. Not for her the mannered and enervating exactitude that other "classically trained" singers often bring to this repertory, placing every pitch and phoneme just so: Upshaw understands the style; no less lovingly polished, her renditions have an Astaire-like ease and charm.
Anthony Spain, too, has made American music more than a token presence in his 12 seasons with the Northwest Symphony. He's conducted 50 different works by local composers, a milestone reached on Saturday's concert. No. 49 was Fanfare and Celebration by current Seattle Symphony composer-in-residence Samuel Jones; like its title, the work was brief and to the point. No. 50 was the only work I can think of that both fulfills the "Northwest composers" stipulation and is part of the standard repertory, Ernest Bloch's Schelomo (Bloch moved to America in 1924 and died in Portland in 1959). Rich Eckert was the cello soloist for this "Hebraic rhapsody" and brought it a beautiful, poignant dignity.