Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: Australian Chamber Orchestra

with Dawn Upshaw, soprano
April 17, Richmond CenterStage

The main offering of the program that the Australian Chamber Orchestra and soprano Dawn Upshaw are presenting on a current U.S. tour is “Winter Morning Walks,” a song cycle by Maria Schneider. This is the second piece written for Upshaw by Schneider, best known as the director of a widely acclaimed jazz orchestra. (Their first collaboration, “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” dates from 2008.)

Schneider’s grounding as a modern-jazz composer and orchestrator is only obliquely evident in “Winter Morning Walks,” a setting of poems by Ted Kooser that evokes “Midwest winter landscapes, moving from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox,” as the composer puts it in a program note.

The set of nine songs is couched in a style that recalls the late 1970s/early 1980s morphing of West Coast jazz into New Age music by the likes of Paul Winter. Schneider’s orchestration, for strings with piano, double-bass and clarinet, is impressionistic and gives off a sense of wide-open space; the vocal lines typically evolve from renditions of text to extended, long-breathed vocalise.

In this performance, printed texts were not provided, and Kooser’s words were only intermittently audible; so I can’t assess Schneider’s settings or Upshaw’s treatment of them. A tone of vaguely nostalgic reverie, set in the first couple of songs, prevailed throughout the cycle; I found myself tuning out by the sixth or seventh number.

“Winter Morning Walks” does not sound to pose much technical or interpretive challenge to Upshaw. She summoned only a few of the colors and inflections that her voice is capable of producing – and that she subsequently produced, with progressing depth of expression, in a post-intermission set of three romantic art-songs, Robert Schumann’s “Mondnacht” and Franz Schubert’s “Geheimes” and “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”).

The string orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti, made its strongest impression at the outset and in miniature, in the early (1925) Octet for strings of Dmitri Shostakovich, in which a lyrically sober, not quite bleak, first movement gives way to a pre-echo of the kind of intense danse macabre that gave so many of Shostakovich’s later works an ominous or tormented edge.

The full, 21-piece Australian Chamber Orchestra concluded the program with Tognetti’s orchestration of Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor. As enlarged for orchestra, this rather episodic piece, whose four movements all contrast slow introductions with uptempo, agitato sections, comes across as a suite of Norwegian dances – at least until the final one, which is based on the Italian saltarello.