The daunting task of comprehending the 20th century through musical landmarks, major and minor, is clearly a comfortable mandate in the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Dawn Upshaw. She has emerged as perhaps the most significant voice of this century’s music, a champion of a huge array of styles and languages, known to even casual listeners as the haunting voice on the multimillion seller Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. With Salonen’s courageous programming, Upshaw’s spectacular soprano is framed artfully and with lushness in a concert that limns notions of transition throughout this century.
Upshaw began her three pieces with Lukas Foss’ “Time Cycle” from 1960, a jarring work of stilted and angular lines full of reactionary avant-garde hallmarks. Its text questions death and the role of the living after an individual passes, Upshaw welling up in horror in her delivery as notes drip seemingly overhead early on and surround her with kettle drums in the third movement. The piece, which ironically avoids standard meter, is more easily admired for its difficulty than its musicality, confined as it is by its dated employment of serialism.
Upshaw absolutely glistened in the readings of two operatic works, Aaron Copland’s “Laurie’s Song,” from 1954’s “The Tender Land,” and Igor Stravinsky’s “No Word From Tom,” from “The Rake’s Progress.” Again, questions of change arose as Copland’s Laurie and Stravinsky’s Anne Trulove, two farm girls approaching adulthood, consider their lives and options. Taken collectively on a grander scale, Salonen and Upshaw remind us of America debating its own innocence and rural upbringing before World War II, the ebb and flow of the orchestration steeped in European convention that echoes America’s own 19th-century roots.
Mexican heritage rang clear in the orchestral selections, first in the Spanish composer Jose Moncayo’s “Huapango,” a strident and furious work, and more completely in Silvestre Revueltas’ “La noche de los Mayas.” In Salonen’s hands, the Revueltas piece had an air of majesty and exploration. Taken from the score of a 1939 film, Salonen gave it impressive depth, its liveliness embellished by spectacular drumming interludes from the 13 percussionists lined up in the back.
It complemented the vocal section with an overriding theme of expansion and change. Roots of folk musics informed each piece almost equally; “La noche de los Mayas,” too, takes in traditions and creates a new soundtrack for changing lives. There’s carousing, the relocating and the sense of belonging and fulfillment, all created through a series of grand vistas made all the more dramatic by the precision of Salonen’s conducting.