By Kyle MacMillan
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Today’s international classical-music scene teems with composers old and young working in a staggering array of styles and conjuring excitingly disparate sound worlds. The Ravinia Festival offered a small taste of this rich diversity with a vocal and chamber program Aug. 27 headlined by soprano Dawn Upshaw, a steadfast adventurer who has championed new music and offbeat repertoire throughout her distinguished career. She first sang at the festival in 1986 and has returned 11 times.
Upshaw joined her regular, much-respected pianist-collaborator Gilbert Kalish and Sō Percussion, a Brooklyn-based percussion quartet that specializes in contemporary works. This wonderfully unorthodox mix of artists came together to perform works by the veteran (and maverick) George Crumb and Caroline Shaw, who astonished the classical world by winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, when she was all but unknown. Both re-contextualize American folk songs in related but distinctive ways.
By far the longest of the two works, clocking in at about 50 minutes, was Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny (2004), the fourth volume of his American Songbook series. In this piece, the composer keeps the original melodies of nine mostly familiar folk songs, including two from the Civil War, but essentially subverts them, creating a wholly different mood and feel by surrounding them with a bevy of percussion ranging from bass drums and vibraphones to sandpaper blocks and a bullroarer, a strip of metal on a rope that makes a loud rumbling noise when swung like a propeller. In this context, the pianist serves as a percussionist, manipulating the strings by hand or percussion brushes or playing a note on the piano with one hand and dampening the strings with the other.
This arsenal of percussion punctuates and accentuates the singing, providing atmospheric and rhythmic color but little in the way of traditional harmonic or melodic accompaniment. Indeed, there is a sense of the singing being almost a cappella — the soloist on a kind of vocal island with all of this percussive kineticism happening around her.
The work’s nearly unrelentingly forbidding mood is set right from the opening song, a version of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”) that is almost apocalyptic in tone. Indeed, Upshaw set her face with a grim expression before she sang a single note, and it never changed during this piece. One of the first things the audience heard from her were a series of disturbing whimpers. Crumb notates his setting with this description — “eerie, uncanny, spectral: like a deserted battlefield under full moonlight” — and that is exactly how it came off. Next came an angry, almost alien take on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” — a version totally drained of hope. The chilling implication is that Johnny is never coming home. And so these songs went.
Shaw’s Narrow Sea, heard here in its Midwestern premiere, was written at the behest of Sō Percussion. Although the quartet wanted her to do something akin to The Winds of Destiny and employ the same forces, the work has a very different, spellbinding feel. Perhaps most important, Shaw keeps the original texts of the songs but provides entirely new melodies. Despite this radical change, there is no sense of subversion as in Crumb’s piece, because these beautifully written replacements maintain the flavor of the original folk hymns while highlighting the strengths of Upshaw’s voice, especially her embracing lower register.
As in Crumb’s piece, the percussion provide a panorama of atmospheric effects, but without a menacing air. Instead, Shaw includes flower pots and bowls of water that produce softer, more meditative sounds. While the piano is used percussively at times, Kalish often provides conventional accompaniment, which gives these reworked songs a much less radical profile than those in The Winds of Destiny. Narrow Sea opens with the delicate simplicity of “Wayfaring Stranger” and returns to it at the end — a melancholic yet still hopeful conclusion.
The other major difference between the scores is the arguably more performative quality of Narrow Sea. While percussion by its very nature has a physical aspect to it, Shaw emphasizes it here, having Upshaw join in and tap a mallet on the piano strings and pour water under heavy amplification. At one point, all four of the percussionists gather around the piano and manipulate the strings in varied unconventional ways (a section that arguably goes on a bit too long).
Many of the qualities that have gained Upshaw so many fans were evident here, including her unruffled fearlessness and versatility. She delivered Crumb’s desolate song reworkings with a fitting air of forlorn determination — undeterred by everything happening around her. In Shaw’s songs, there was more of a chance to hear Upshaw’s flowing line and the sense of genuineness and straightforwardness that has always been part of her singing.
Before the concert began, the stage of Ravinia’s intimate Martin Theatre was packed with dozens of stand-alone instruments and others arranged on tables as well as a small forest of microphones to amplify them. For the concert opener, Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, the four members of Sō Percussion sat at tables in a U shape at the front of the stage, each with a dulcimer-like instrument the composer and guitarist designed in conjunction with Aron Sanchez. There were alto, tenor, and bass versions of these instruments (the bass one provides the melody), each with two off-setting sets of four strings. (Also used sparingly were a few auxiliary pieces of percussion, including a snare drum and wood block.)
These amazing instruments produced a surprising range of colors and effects as each player swept the strings with tiny bows, tapped them with ordinary pencils (producing the most traditionally dulcimer-like quality) or plucked them with his hands. The ever-changing music had an iterative, sometimes minimalist feel with vigorous cascades of notes at certain times and shimmering clouds of sound at others. Dessner is one of the most versatile musicians of our time, serving as guitarist for indie rock band The National and writing contemporary classical music for such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Eighth Blackbird. And this work evoked all of those facets, with moments that had rock and folk sensibilities.
The perfectly matched members of Sō Percussion — Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting — are consummate musicians and masters of an extraordinary range of instruments both conventional and not. They delivered intense, thoroughly invested performances and proved themselves to be adept and communicative collaborators.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.