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Ayre (2004): Reviews
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From: The Cleveland Plain Dealer (Wilma Salisbury)

Soprano leads program with heart and soul

Soprano Dawn Upshaw took listeners on a mesmerizing musical journey Sunday night at Severance Hall. "Ayre," the stunning song cycle written for her by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov (who was in the audience) revisits 15th-century Spain and its vivid mix of Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures.

The composer adapts ancient melodies, writes original tunes and incorporates music by fellow Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, one of 12 players in the accompanying ensemble of traditional and contemporary instruments. Golijov requires the soloist to tell stories with the directness of a folk singer, play characters of passionate temperament, pour out lyrical melodies with sweet tone, utter angry shouts, sob in anguish and whisper a poem as her recorded voice intones a haunting Sephardic call to prayer.

The texts, spoken or sung in six different languages, evoke a merciless princess who has a weeping captive killed, the spirit of a child who was roasted by his mother, and an exile yearning for a sense of identity. The emotional spectrum ranges from a sweet lullaby and a gentle love song to a furious outburst and a wild cry of pain.

Upshaw penetrated to the heart and soul of each song with consummate musicianship and subtle but intense theatricality. Despite the presence of a large headset microphone that partially obscured her face, she expressed the meaning of the words with her eyes and body as well as her beautiful voice, and she worked with the ensemble like a star player who understands and appreciates the importance of teamwork.

The musicians produced an astonishing array of instrumental colors. Michael Ward-Bergeman's hyper-accordion thundered on gigantic red bellows. Matthew Duvall's percussion pattered with the precision of Middle Eastern hand-drumming. Michael J. Maccaferri's clarinet broke out in klezmer tunes. Santaolalla's ronroco (a traditional Andean guitar) spoke with delicate tones. Mark Dresser's bass climbed high into the treble range. Erik Ruske's horn sang wordless melodies. Jeremy Flower's laptop and sound design seamlessly blended acoustic and electronic sonorities.

The brilliant ensemble was made up of free-lancers, virtuosos from the Andalucian Dogs (the group that recorded "Ayre" with Upshaw) and members of eighth blackbird, the exciting new-music sextet that was formed nine years ago at the Oberlin Conservatory.

In the first part of the program, eighth blackbird was spotlighted in "Tied Shifts," a challenging piece the ensemble commissioned from composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel. In this imaginative spatial work, the musicians played complex Bulgarian rhythms as they walked in choreographed patterns, confronted one another or took turns encircling seated colleagues. Their impressive performance was preceded by a set of Santaolalla's songs sung and played by the composer with the assistance of accordionist Ward-Bergeman. The partners created an intimate club atmosphere, and Upshaw, who grew up singing folk songs with her family, quietly joined the duo in a couple of numbers.

The outstanding concert was presented by the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of its new Viva! and Gala Around Town series.

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