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October 21, 2005

Light as Ayre

Osvaldo Golijov, whose work will be performed in Cleveland on October 30 by Dawn Upshaw and Eighth Blackbird, a sextet that is one-third gay, is the rare composer who can create gorgeous alchemical syntheses from multi-cultural texts, ancient musical forms, and contemporary concerns.

His compellingly modern sound and marvelous sense of color and texture undoubtedly drew the Kronos Quartet to him, producing numerous compositions and arrangements that exhibit an uncanny ability to seduce us with their magic.

Now Golijov turns to the great soprano Upshaw, for whom he has written a number of works, to create the right voice for Ayre, a riveting new cycle of 11 songs just released on Deutsche Grammophon. Conceived as a companion work for the other song cycle on the disc, Luciano Berio�s pioneering Folk Songs (1964)--11 chamber settings of folks songs from seven different regions of the world, originally created for the estimable talents of Berio�s wife and muse, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian--Ayre stuns the senses as it combines acoustic instruments and electronic sound design with the wonders of Upshaw�s artistry.

Golijov, 45, was born into an Eastern European Jewish family and raised in Argentina. Having spent years studying in Jerusalem, Siena, and the United States, he has internalized the sounds, feelings, and paradoxes of opposing cultures that deny their commonalities. His love of European chamber music, traditional Jewish chants, klezmer melodies, Piazzolla�s new tango, plus studies with modernists George Crumb and Oliver Knussen have together enabled Golijov to transform everything from gypsy music and Mexican rock into acoustic and electro-acoustic soundscapes that resonate with timeless truth and beauty.

No amount of previous experience with Upshaw�s ability to enchant with baroque laments, classic folk song, radiant Mozart, Broadway hits (including Bernstein�s hilarious �Glitter and Be Gay�), Janacek�s beguiling vixen, and Kaija Saariaho�s mesmerizing modernity could prepare for what she does on Ayre. Upshaw comes off as a vocal chameleon, producing a wider range of voices, affect and nuance than anyone could have possibly imagined.

�All vocal sounds come from my throat,� Upshaw laughed when asked about the range of sounds.

�Some other people have asked me the same, in particular about the third song [�Tancas serradas a muru--Walls are encircling the land,� with lyrics and music from 18th century Sardinia]. It was one of the great moments working with Osvaldo. He played many different things for me, including this voice of this woman who was groveling down in her lower range with a harsh quality and an anger; a real anger was what I heard more than anything else,� she said.

�I thought, what a fantastic kind of adventure for myself. I�m always searching for new ways or deeper expression through singing. I played around and I realized that we�re all so more capable of doing many more things than we ever ask of ourselves;� she explained. �There was something really expressive about singing with this particular color that was so connected to the message of the text, which is about injustice.�

Still, it�s hard to believe that the strange, ranting, gravelly voice heard through quasi-Sardinian hip-hop electronica is Upshaw�s.

Upshaw explains that in live performance, she allows her voice to readjust during the short instrumental interlude that follows. Readjust she must, because her high register in �Nani� sounds as innocently pure as the Upshaw voice of old. Though the song begins as a beautiful, sad lullaby from father to child, tone and voice transform anew as the man�s wife calls him on his infidelity.

It is hard to resist the whirling dance of �Wa Habibi,� during which Upshaw�s artistry becomes increasingly animated; her low, pained and impassioned voice on �Aiini taqtiru,� where weeping tones transcend verbiage; and the sensuous wailing of �Ariadne in her labyrinth,� distinguished by Upshaw�s masterful variation of straight tone, vibrato, and color. Equally remarkable is the way Golijov interweaves Upshaw�s English reading of a long, contemporary poem from a Palestinian in exile with a moving 12th century Sephardic call to prayer.

The recording features the Andalucian Dogs, an international ensemble that includes David Krakauer on clarinet.

On Upshaw�s Ayre tour, the Eighth Blackbird sextet serves as the core ensemble, augmented by instrumentalists on guitar, ronroco (an Argentine fretted lute), double bass, harp, accordion, and laptop. The program opens with a set of songs by Argentinian Gustavo Santaollala, who contributed two pieces to Ayre. After Eighth Blackbird performs a piece by Dereck Bermel, Upshaw returns for Golijov�s tour de force.

The Ayre tour comes to Severance Hall in Cleveland at 7:30 pm on Sunday, October 30. Tickets are $39, $34 for Cleveland Museum of Art members. For tickets, call 216-4217350 go to


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