After six years in a position which has been highlighted by a series of world premiere pieces written specifically for her, soprano Dawn Upshaw says the end of her tenure at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is bittersweet.
Upshaw performs her last three concerts as a SPCO artistic partner this weekend.
Listening to Upshaw sing is like bathing in angelic sound, as is proved by her recent recording with the SPCO performing "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories" set to music by Minnesota's own Maria Schneider. It was one of no less than six pieces the orchestra commissioned for Upshaw, a champion of new music.
"That was a huge draw for me," she said. 'When they came to me that was part of the offering as an artistic partner and, yes, that's been huge. We have had some really wonderful pieces come out of this and certainly the recording that is just out recently, the Maria Schneider piece has been a highlight for me."
The SPCO moved to the artistic partner model of operation several years ago, replacing the more traditional practice of a music director at the helm. Typically there are four artistic partners who come to St. Paul each year to work with the SPCO for a number of concerts. Upshaw describes it as being like a series of residencies.
"I've enjoyed getting to know many of the musicians better. I've enjoyed making music with them on a more regular basis so that our relationship, our musical relationship, becomes tighter, is a tighter bond," Upshaw said. "When you're thrown together with an orchestra just for a few days at a time and you are quickly throwing something together, it really helps to have that bond. It makes for better music-making."
The past several months have been a troubled time for the SPCO. Much of the season was lost to a contract dispute and a musicians lockout, Upshaw said it's been hard to watch.
"I feel I am kind of looking in from outside," she said.
"And it's very painful, although I am sure it is not as painful for me as it is for them. I know it's not," Upshaw said, speaking of the SPCO musicians, management and the orchestra board. She believes the turbulence in the world of classical music extends much beyond individual contract battles, she said.
"I think it's already causing us, people in the business to ask many important questions," Upshaw said. "And it's going to continue."
It may be years before people can objectively look at what is happening at the orchestra, she said.
With neighborhood concerts Thursday in Stillwater, Friday in Eden Prairie, and Saturday in St. Paul, Upshaw said she has no real expectations of what her last few concerts as an artistic partner might bring. For her part of the program Upshaw will sing "Ravel," and "Night of the Four Moons" by George Crumb. Her only regret is that these pieces require only a few musicians rather than the entire orchestra, she said.
"That part of it breaks my heart a little bit, especially considering what they've been through," she said. "But I will of course see them and hear them play Mozart and Haydn, so that I am sure will be really gorgeous."
She won't have to wait long to partner again with the SPCO. Upshaw is scheduled to return in late October to perform that final commission.