Osvaldo Golijov
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Ayre (2004): Reviews
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From: Berkshire Eagle (Andrew L. Pincus)

'Ayre' offers a lament for a lost time and civilization in which harmony reigned

Dawn Upshaw howled. She growled. Dressed in widow's black with colorful Spanish streamers flowing from her arms, she shrieked, shimmied and shook.

The instrumental ensemble — partly classical instruments, partly Latino -- moaned and screamed. Ghostly hoofbeats, roars, echoes and wave sounds rushed from loudspeakers. At one point, as many as four Upshaws were singing.

The 11 songs were mostly in Ladino, the language of 15th-century Spanish Jews. The rhythms were often hypnotic.

"Conquerors come, come, conquerors go," ran the refrain, in stunned, spoken English, of the pivotal eighth song, "Be a String, Water, to My Guitar."

"I know I've died, leaving behind what is / Best of what is mine in this place: my past."

In the third song, walls encircle the land, "seized with greed and in haste."

In the final song, a mother asks, "Why do you cry, fair child? / Why do you cry, white flower?" And the child replies, "I cry because you leave me."

"Ayre," performed Wednesday night at Tanglewood by Upshaw, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and assisting klezmer and Latino musicians, is Osvaldo Golijov's new-old arrangement of Christian, Arab and Jewish folk songs from Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in the Columbus year, 1492. Loss, suffering and grief hang over the 40-minute work. Even a lullaby and a simple love song are shadowed by tragedy.

The means are smaller, but "Ayre" is a natural sequel from the composer of the street-theater piece "La Pasion Segun San Marcos," performed at Tanglewood in 2002, and the death-of-Lorca opera "Ainadamar," premiered last year. In each, Golijov draws on his Jewish and Latin American roots, along with popular sources, to fashion a statement at one timeless and contemporary. In each, his great champion, Upshaw, sings.

Does it work? Yes, of course it does. It exerts a power the more compelling for at times being repelling. (But it was almost shocking to hear the large Ozawa Hall audience burst into wild cheers at the end. Wouldn't stunned silence have been more appropriate?)

"Ayre" was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the opening season of its new Zankel Hall and premiered there last March. For this performance, six Boston Symphony members joined with clarinetist David Krakauer, accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla and sound designer Jeremy Flower, some or all of whom presumably took part in the premiere.

Certainly, this performance, some of it amplified to high volume levels, lacked nothing in visceral impact. The sheer physicality of Upshaw's singing, along with its vocal insights and acrobatics, was enough to hold the listener in a powerful grip. But there was more to it than that.

Golijov compares "Ayre" to Luciano Berio's modernized settings in his Italian "Folk Songs." A distant antecedent is Joseph Canteloube's once-popular French folk song arrangements in "Songs of the Auvergne." In the program notes, Golijov says his intention was "to create a 'forest' and for Dawn to walk in it."

The forest simile is a good one. This wood is both oppressive and enchanted, tragic and imbued with the human spirit of resilience. ..."Ayre" is a lament for a lost time and civilization, one in which Christian, Arab and Jew could live in harmony. In its darkened trail, it sweeps all doubts aside. Music functions in the service of both itself and a higher ideal.

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