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Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider. Picture: Jimmy Katz

While American poet Ted Kooster was recovering from cancer treatment, he would go for early morning walks. Inspired by what he saw and felt and thought, he also began writing poems each morning which he would then stick on postcards and send to his friend, Jim Harrison.

It may or may not be relevant that American composer Maria Schneider and soprano Dawn Upshaw are also cancer survivors. What is relevant is that they have brought all their humanity to bear on Schneider's luminous setting for a selection of Kooster's poems, Winter Morning Walks.

"It goes a little bit deeper than (our being breast cancer survivors)," Upshaw says.

"I also lost my sister to cancer shortly after the (2011) premiere. But really, all our life experiences go into realising this music."

Written especially for Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and three improvising musicians - pianist Frank Kimbrough, clarinettist Scott Robinson and bass player Jay Anderson - Winter Morning Walks will receive its Australian premiere at the Perth Festival this week as part of the ACO's first national tour for the year.

Fans of Schneider, Upshaw or the ACO won't be surprised that the piece won best contemporary classical composition at the Grammys earlier this year and that recording of the work by the present artists won three more. But they might be surprised by just how musically direct and emotionally powerful Winter Morning Walks actually is.

From the still, icy opening of Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning through such songs as Walking by Flashlight ("coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,/each watching from darkness/this man with the Moon on a leash.") and My Wife and I Walk the Cold Road (". . asking for 30 more years.") to the final How Important It Must Be (". . . to someone/that I am alive, and walking,/and that I have written/these poems."), Winter Morning Walks seizes the spirit from the first note to the last.

"It's such a joy," the Nashville-born soprano says over the phone from the US. "I loved making the recording with Maria and the ACO really enjoyed it too. We had performed the work on a long tour beforehand and it really began to take on a life of its own."

Upshaw, who has won numerous Grammys in the past and is as renowned for her mastery of a wide range of music from baroque to Broadway as for her beautiful voice and musical intelligence, recalls her first artistic encounter with Schneider.

"The last piece she wrote for me, which was also the first one, was Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories (2008)," she says.

"I immediately felt afterwards that something was bubbling away and wanting to come out. I wanted her to write another piece for me straight away."

Her enthusiasm for Schneider and for her music is equalled by that for the ACO and its director, Richard Tognetti.

"Everybody has their own tastes but I do seem to share a lot in terms of what moves me and what moves Richard," she says. "He wants to play music that says something to him, no matter what century it comes from. That's how I choose my own music. And when we're performing, it's like this rather intimate relationship too. The common denominator is true conviction."

Accordingly, the rest of the program on this tour is eclectic to say the least. Apart from the Schneider, we have a selection of dances from John's Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams, Greig's Holberg Suite and Solveig's Song, Rautavaara's setting of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Liebenden, and Elgar's Introduction and Allegro.

Perhaps one of the secrets to Upshaw's success across so many genres lies in her ability to collaborate rather than merely interpret.

"I have many wonderful colleagues that I learn a lot from," she says. "I find collaborating on projects and bringing different ideas together to create a whole more interesting than just repeating things."