Upshaw, eighth blackbird take flight in Golijov’s “Ayre”

Thu Nov 19, 2009 at 11:00 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Dawn Upshaw performed with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Tuesday night at Mandel Hall.

November has become something of an unofficial Dawn Upshaw Month at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall.

Two weeks ago the soprano, a Chicago area native, appeared in a full-scale concert with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing a song cycle written for her by Osvaldo Golijov and a world premiere by Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias.

On Tuesday night, she was back in Mandel Hall, in an entirely different format, to open the university’s annual Artspeaks series. Once again the music was a cycle Golijov had written for her, the intensely dramatic Ayre, which had its premiere in 2004. But her backup musicians were eighth blackbird, the bracing contemporary chamber ensemble, expanded to include accordion, ronroco (a small, guitar-like instrument), laptop and sound design along with less exotic instruments like horn, harp, guitar and bass. After the 40-minute performance, Upshaw and the musicians joined Golijov and U. of C. music professor Shulamit Ran onstage to discuss the work with the audience.

Upshaw and Golijov have worked closely together during the past decade, and the 11 songs of Ayre make a compelling showcase for both their gifts.A composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Golijov grew up in Argentina in a family of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He was fascinated by all styles of music from Western classical to Argentine pop, Catholic liturgical chant to the rueful good cheer of klezmer tunes. His best work, including the sprawling La Pasion segun San Marcos, is an exhilarating, thought-provoking mash-up of colors, textures and moods.

Golijov modeled Ayre on Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, a cycle written in 1964 based on centuries-old folk melodies from countries ranging from the U. S. to Azerbaijan. Golijov reached farther back for his material, to medieval Spain. The texts of Ayre are in Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Sardinian and Ladino, a now-vanished language once spoken by Spanish Jews. The music itself ranges from the simple lyricism of a medieval love song to the howling dissonance of an enraged mob. In one of the songs, Upshaw’s voice is heard in four layers. Onstage she recited a mournful poem by contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in English. She was accompanied by three sets of her recorded voice singing a 12th century Jewish call to prayer.

Upshaw sounded entirely at ease in Golijov’s abruptly shifting, often jagged melodies. Her voice is flexible and clear, but it has bloomed with an enriching warmth and fullness in recent years. She provided moments of meditative, heart-stopping purity as well as plunging leaps and insouciant ornaments.

Eighth blackbird and their colleagues sounded equally relaxed, jumping easily from outbursts of infectious rock and roll and seductive jazz riffs to quiet, folk-style simplicity.

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