SPECIAL project

2020-21: "The Dido Project" with soprano DAWN UPSHAW 

Featuring a first half of early English songs and consort music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, culminating in Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. The second half then imagines Dido into our modern age in a newly commissioned monodrama for soprano and quartet by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Melinda Wagner and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann.

Twenty-seven years into quartetdom the four of us in the Brentano Quartet still have a great time making music together and still manage to surprise and inspire each other. But we are also lucky to partner with artists who give us new insights, challenge us, complement us, and help us to continue to grow and explore. Over the past few seasons, working with the dynamic, imaginative, and profound soprano Dawn Upshaw has been a great joy in every way, and we have treasured our time with her, on stage and off. After many glorious concerts of Respighi and Schönberg we found ourselves wondering, first of all, why there isn’t a vast repertoire for the combination of soprano and quartet and, second of all, what we might do about that so that we could continue our creativity with Dawn.


One fertile area of investigation for our group has been music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, in repertoire that predates the string quartet as a form but shares its values, its sense of communing, its rhetorical textures. Music for viol consort feels to us like a true ancestor of the string quartet, and we have loved playing, and have learned much from, English consort music of Byrd, Gibbons, Mico and Purcell, its plaintive voices offering poignant flexibility of nuance and unctuous richness. The purity and piercing beauty of this music touches us deeply, as does the idea of a viol consort as an intimate gathering of friends blending sounds and ideas. It is music of the home, of the parlor. The song repertoire from this period is no less moving and perhaps, for example in songs with lute, even more vulnerable, delicate, private and inward. Dawn has a way, when she sings, of making you feel she is speaking plainly, piercingly and with utter candor, right to you. It occurred to us that combining these two musics, transcribing the songs by composers such as Dowland and Purcell to include string quartet, would make for a particularly felicitous collection of gems for the first half of a concert. And then we couldn’t think of Dawn and early English music without wanting, desperately, to hear her sing Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. 


Allied to the song repertoire in its sense of privacy and immediacy, as a confession to one beloved confidante, this heart-rending aria belongs, of course, to the world of opera. But, accompanied only by strings as it is, this is opera on a human scale. The story of Dido, the spurned lover, the strong yet vulnerable woman, is archetypal and invites a multiplicity of interpretations and re-examinations. And so we thought of a modern Dido, a Dido for our age, as the protagonist of a sizable new monodrama for soprano and string quartet.


Dawn loved the idea immediately, sharing our enthusiasm and excitement. We decided to approach Melinda Wagner, the Pulitzer Prize winning composer whose vibrant and protean music we love, with the idea. To our collective delight, she responded with keen interest. We are just at the very early gestational stage now, thinking about writers and about the direction the piece will take, but Melinda is already musing on how to approach the subject. She writes: 


I have decided not to riff on Purcell’s version of the story. Instead, I would like very much to peel back the layers of Virgil’s Dido, the language of which is already explicit and florid. I would take each stage of Dido’s story, say, her initial hesitance vis-à-vis Aeneas, feelings of guilt, etc., and “look for” (imagine) some kind of subtext that has a relationship to our present-day experiences — love, politics, gender dynamics/roles, etc., etc. It will be interesting to figure out how to portray the idea of fate, and/or the misbehavior/intercession of the gods, in this story.


We can’t wait to see where this all leads and to continue making music that is fresh and flexible with Dawn Upshaw.


Mark Steinberg, January, 2019

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© 2017 by David Rowe Artists. 

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