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An Ayre of Magic

March 4, 2008

Dawn Upshaw flew in with eighth blackbird to sing a concert Saturday night in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The eighth blackbird sextet and six equally remarkable players formed the Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, which joined Upshaw in a stunning performance of Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre.
The 11 songs comprising Ayre (air/song) form a rich stew of languages and musical styles. The texts, many from medieval Spain, are Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Ladino (the ancient language of the Sephardim — the Spanish Jews). They come from the mingled Christian, Moorish, and Jewish cultures that coexisted for years in Spain. Golijov's use of musical languages and instruments from all over the world reflect his own biography. Born to a Jewish family displaced from Eastern Europe to Catholic Argentina, he grew up with European chamber music, Jewish chants and klezmer music, and Astor Piazzola's jazz tangos. In his 20s, he lived for several years in Jerusalem before emigrating to the United States.

Dawn Upshaw has credited Golijov with helping her to find "something emotionally and vocally that I didn't even know was there." Certainly her performance of Ayre revealed an astonishing variety of vocal colors used to express searing emotional states. In the first song, accompanied by a klezmer clarinet, she used her chest voice and a marvelous array of Middle Eastern vocal embellishments to tell a gripping story of a Moorish-Christian war, a princess who offers herself to a captive admiral, his refusal and her revenge. (Don't mess with a princess; she can have you killed in an instant.)
Upshaw’s Urgency
The songs proceeded without interruption, creating an integrated whole, and Upshaw, the instruments in a half-circle around her, moved in her space as she related to particular players. In "Tancas serardas a muru" (Walls are encircling the land), the singer half-chanted and half-spoke, in an incredibly low-pitched, urgent voice. And the Orquesta burst into a raucous fury of winds, strings, and percussion. Los Pelegrinos (its name one letter removed from the word for pilgrims) are fighters in a blazing army of sound. But they can also be tender, as in the instrumental "Luna" (Moon) leading into a lullaby that, like the first song, ended in an ironic twist.

"Wa Habibi" (My love, what has happened?) was introduced by an amazing instrumental outburst from the huge roaring hyper-accordion. In "Aiini Taqtiru" (My eyes weep), an Arab-Christian Easter song, Upshaw sang again in a low tessitura, and the accompaniment moved from accordion to double bass (in fascinating sounds produced by Mark Dresser) to cello, violin, and flute.

"Kun Li-Guitari Wateran Ayyuha Al-Maa" (Be a string, water ... ) started with a spoken refrain in English, translated from the Arabic of contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "Be a string, water, to my guitar ... Be a memory for me/ So I can see what I've lost. ..." The ensuing Arabic was sung with guitar, and the recurring refrain was again spoken in English. An instrumental segue spiced with Middle Eastern intervals of augmented seconds was joined by Upshaw singing a love song, "Suéltate las cintas" (Untie your ribbons), in her warm higher range.

The next song began with an abrupt change of vocal sound — hard and insistent — as she returned to some of Darwish’s material, combined with a Sephardic call to prayer. She sang with a recording of herself in the same pained tone, as she gradually eased into a warmer voice. The cycle ended, gradually winding down in volume, with poor abandoned Ariadne.
Blackbird and Whales
The first half of the concert was performed by eighth blackbird. Flutist Timothy Munro, cellist Nicholas Photinos, and pianist Lisa Kaplan played George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the whale), inspired by recordings of humpback whale songs. As specified in the score, the players were bathed in deep-blue stage lighting and wore black masks over their eyes to dehumanize themselves. Munro simultaneously hummed and played his flute.

The prepared piano sounds and cello harmonics contributed to the underwater effect, and the players performed without scores (unless Kaplan had one lurking inside the piano). A full concert of Crumb's works would begin to sound predictably gimmicky, but the playing of just one — certainly this one — was engaging, particularly in the hands of eighth blackbird.

The concert began with all six eighth blackbirds — including clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, violist Matt Albert, and percussionist Matthew Duval — playing Meanwhile by Stephen Hartke. Hartke described his work as "incidental music to imaginary puppet plays," and his imagination ran to Asian puppetry — Japanese puppet theaters, Vietnamese water puppets, Indonesian and Turkish shadow puppets, and Burmese court theater using dancers and marionettes.

The piano was prepared with mutes, the viola tuned down to change timbre and harmonics, and the percussionist had a field day with all sorts of exotic instruments. The pianist began by playing with a mallet on a flexatone, manipulating the instrument to produce an eerie microtonal environment for what followed. A steady dancing beat held everything together as various instrumental combinations advanced in prominent roles and receded in favor of others. It was intriguing to hear and see the percussion take its turn as a solo instrument while others, such as the viola, held the basic beat steady. Meanwhile was an excellent opener for Golijov's Ayre, preparing the audience's ears for a trip around the world.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.