New Yorkers flocked to BAM on Thursday to celebrate the beginning of the Next Wave Festival 2014. Some crowded into the Howard Gilman Opera House to hear Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But, even more discerning audiences were just around the corner at BAM’s Harvey Theater for a program that featured soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gilbert Kalish.

The evening began with Elliot Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (1952), and then was followed by a set of songs by Charles Ives, and George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970). The obvious thread that binds the pieces on the program is that 20th century composers composed them all. But, another common thread was woven into the program: the relationship of the music and the musicians to Nonesuch Records.

Dawn Upshaw © Brooke Irish
Dawn Upshaw
© Brooke Irish

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and cellist Fred Sherry recorded the Carter’s Sonata for Nonesuch years ago, while Kalish also released several recordings of Ives for the label, including including The Alcotts, from Piano Sonata no. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60” which he performed Thursday. Very curiously, the Nonesuch recording of Ancient Voices is what inspired Upshaw to pursue a career as a singer that included “classical” music. She confessed in an engaging post-show discussion that as a college student at Illinois Wesleyan Universirty, she thought she would go on to perform musical theater.

When Upshaw discovered a recording of Ancient Voices in a box $1.99 LPs at a used book store one day, the album cover displaying a butterfly immediately attracted her. Little did she know the music contained on the disc would change her life. Ancient Voices is, indeed, a transcendent piece, and was by far the most exciting part of Thursday evening’s performance.

Though Upshaw performed this piece at Carnegie Hall years ago, her performance of this highly idiosyncratic work was only her second to date. To experience her consummate musicianship and dramatic power in any context is a true delight. But, because this piece of music is so central to Upshaw’s journey as a musician, the rare opportunity to hear her performance this was especially powerful.

When the work begins, Upshaw sings into the soundboard of the piano with the sustain pedals released. Her ancient cries reverberate through the instrument, and the upper harmonics resound throughout the space. Any keyboardist who has spent a good deal of time coaching singers is aware of this phenomenon, but to explore it as an extended technique is a wonderful compositional device.

The piece explores other extended techniques, both vocally and instrumentally. At times, Upshaw whispered into a long paper tube. During other moments she screamed, shouted, and howled. Occasionally, the piece blossomed lyrically, or rivers of melisma poured from her mouth.

The musicians were also required to participate vocally, often whispering lines of the text by Lorca, or singing in harmony. Most instrumentalists were required to double: the oboe on harmonica; the mandolin player on musical saw; the pianist on toy piano. The three percussionists used traditional instruments as well as found objects such as rocks.

Though the Ives songs do not approach mystical collage of sounds in Ancient Voices, they are charming nonetheless. Upshaw transitioned between the many affects of each short piece flawlessly. Comic songs such as the popular Very Pleasant (“We’re sitting in the opera house) were juxtaposed with more lyrically brooding works like Rather Sad. In many respects, presenting a recital of songs, or even a set of songs, is more challenging than performing a role since one must move so quickly between various emotions, often with different speakers or points of view in each song text.

Though the songs by Ives were the oldest on the program, they have certainly stood the test of time better than Carter’s Sonata. While I was impressed with the musicianship of the Fred Sherry Quartet, I must confess that sitting through this piece felt rather like a chore until the final movement. Then, the piece danced along, particularly because of flautist Tara Helen O’Connor’s keen ability to embody the music.

I guess we all have to eat our vegetables though, and I was willing to patiently wait through the Sonata in order to enjoy my main course of Ives, followed by the truly transcendent dessert of Ancient Voices. It is easy to see why the work changed Upshaw’s life and expanded her horizons as a musician. Were I not already keen to celebrate the works of new and living composers, Ancient Voices would certainly open me up to the future of classical music.