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Published Sep. 29, 2005

Dawn Upshaw, soprano: Dawn Upshaw sings Vernon Duke (Nonesuch)

Dawn Upshaw is one of the few opera singers who is persuasive in pop music, and her latest crossover effort, a collection of 14 songs by Vernon Duke, is not just a pleasure to hear, it's also a contribution to the rediscovery of a forgotten talent.

Duke, a Russian exile from the Bolshevik revolution, had impeccable classical music credentials, having studied composition with Gliere, composed a ballet for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and had his First Symphony premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1929. However, once he settled in New York, he had to make a living, and his friend George Gershwin encouraged him to go into musical theater. He wrote a string of shows with many of the lyricists of the golden age of Broadway, such as Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg and Howard Dietz.

Cabin in the Sky, starring Ethel Waters, was the closest thing to a hit Duke ever had, but he wrote his share of songs that became standards, including Autumn in New York (for which he wrote the lyrics) and April in Paris, given a virtuoso performance by Upshaw. One of his frequent collaborators was the popular writer of light verse Ogden Nash, and Upshaw resurrects several of their gemlike ballads (Born Too Late, in particular, is a beauty), as well as a charming novelty number, The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull.

Upshaw has a sunny all-American soprano that seems born for Duke's music, which is more intricately scored than the usual Broadway fare. She's a diva who knows her away around a saloon torch song, such as The Love I Long For. She displays a gift for musical comedy in Not a Care in the World, with witty, oddball lyrics _ i.e., "My in-laws are weasels" _ by John Latouche.

Dawn Upshaw sings Vernon Duke is a class act all the way, with Eric Stern conducting sumptuous orchestra arrangements by the likes of Jonathan Tunick, Michael Starobin and Richard Rodney Bennett. Jazz pianist Fred Hersch plays on four numbers, and Upshaw and guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli have a delightful duet on I Like the Likes of You. Grade: A


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