Speaking to the Past in 'Ancient Voices'

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Dawn Upshaw is the most versatile soprano I know. And also the bravest.

She may be a favorite at the cautious Metropolitan Opera, as well as an acclaimed singer of popular song and a hip heroine to living composers, but she still remains restless, willing to try just about anything. Inflexible Bachians, for instance, are still clucking over her recital last year in New York, where she risked ridicule by performing in recital a solo Bach cantata as dramatically envisioned by Peter Sellars, which meant a considerable amount of throwing herself on the floor and writhing in agony to theatrically italicize the music's powerful emotion.

There is simply no stopping her. Appearing in a UCLA recital Saturday night at Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Upshaw went further still. In reviving George Crumb's mystical "Ancient Voices of Children," a work that stood as a sort of psychedelic emblem of new music a quarter century ago, she not only sang it but danced and enacted it, with the considerable help of choreographer Bill T. Jones.

When new, "Ancient Voices"--very much a product of its heady times--seemed to bridge the very important generational gaps of the early '70s. In setting fragments of poems by Lorca for soprano, boy soprano and exotic instruments (toy piano, Tibetan bells and musical saw among them), Crumb sought to float the words in a mysterious atmosphere. A master of sound effects--the soprano sings into the piano to create haunting resonances, an oboist bends pitches as if the instrument were Middle Eastern--he became beloved of a generation that liked to think of music as a means of transporting the spirit into other realms.

But "Ancient Voices" also achieved proper academic approval. The score is cleverly constructed and as beautiful to look at on the page as it is to listen to. Each of its short songs and dances uses a different form of clever typography; one even has music printed in circular patterns. Other music, bits of Bach and Mahler, float through the work, and that, too, is expertly managed with never a hint of cliche.

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Times change, however. The psychedelic butterfly collage on the white cover of the Nonesuch 1971 "Ancient Voices" recording may have been a familiar sight in a typical college student's record collection--perfectly at home in a stack with, say, Bob Dylan, Coltrane, the Beatles, Satie and Ravi Shankar--but then the piece pretty much faded away. Crumb, a music professor in Philadelphia, became an almost forgotten figure.

Upshaw's performance, which was given with the sure assistance of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players conducted by David Milnes, did probably as much as any could to make a current case for "Ancient Voices." The fact that the soprano was joined by pianist Gilbert Kalish, who had performed on the original recording, and a wonderful boy soprano, Erick Carlson, added much. Indeed, after Saturday, that old recording no longer stands as definitive.

But there is probably a reason why "Ancient Voices" hasn't remained in the repertory, and Jones' staging made it apparent. Combining his own penchant for quirky movement with a seeming return to the loony emotional excess of early '70s performance art, Jones had Upshaw striking extravagant Goya-esque poses that drew too much attention to everything contrived (however expertly) in the music, highlighting its gears and inner workings, and coming dangerously close to parody of what had once seemed so mysterious.

In the first half of her recital, she seemed equally determined not to fall back on a single one of her many laurels. Accompanied by Kalish, she offered a dozen songs by composers who were born between 1954 and 1961--in other words, as she wrote in the program, her contemporaries.

The songs had come to her in various ways, through judging song competitions, through friends and colleagues, through the mails unsolicited. Many of the names were unfamiliar, but most of the composers shared a tendency for setting serious verse to bland melody that deferred at all times to word and poetic sense. Two songs, however, were different-- Michael Torke's adaptation of one song from his "Four Proverbs," with its punk accompaniment (for which Kalish was disastrously square), and Aaron Kernis' extravagant tone painting in "Bunches of Grapes."

But bravery has its own rewards, and Upshaw sang everything with the kind of dramatic enthusiasm and musical care that makes even her failures more interesting and admirable than the average performer's successes.

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