Osvaldo Golijov
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Ayre (2004): Reviews
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From: Home Theater High Fidelity (Jason Victor Serinus)

Osvaldo Golijov is that 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 original collaborations and arrangements that exhibit an uncanny ability to seduce us with their magic.

Now Golijov turns to the great soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom he has written a number of works, to create the right voice(s) for Ayre, his riveting new cycle of 11 songs just released on DG. Conceived as a companion work for the other work on the disc, Luciano Berio's pioneering Folk Songs (1964) — 11 settings of folks songs from seven different regions of the world written for chamber ensemble and the estimable talents of Berio's wife and muse, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian — Ayre literally 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 continue to deny their commonalities. European chamber music, traditional Jewish chants, klezmer melodies, Piazzolla's new tango, and studies with modernists George Crumb and Oliver Knussen have together served to hone skills that can transform everything from gypsy music and Mexican rock into electro-acoustic soundscapes that resonate with timeless truth and beauty.

No amount of previous experience with Dawn Upshaw's ability to sing baroque laments, classic folk song, radiant Mozart, Broadway hits (including Bernstein's hilarious "Glitter and Be Gay"), Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, and Kaija Saariaho's mesmerizing modern music could prepare me for what she does with her voice on Ayre. Upshaw comes off as a vocal chameleon of sorts, producing a wide range of voices, affect, and nuance than I could have possibly imagined.

Even though I know that the only voice heard is Upshaw's, I find it hard to believe that the strange, ranting voice heard through quasi-Sardinian hip-hop electronica is hers. Her versatility is dumbfounding.

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

Ayre speaks to the heart of the cultural clashes that threaten to destroy us. Ending with a traditional Sephardic romance that bespeaks the pain of separation, personal, political, and spiritual entwine as the music's soul-touching beauty reminds us that the joys and passion of embodiment transcend the illusion of difference. As Golijov has stated, "The matters that are most important in life are love and the possibility of the existence of God. For me, the leitmotiv underlying everything I write is that life is more sacred than ideas."

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