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`Ayre’s` wicked little twist

LA Times

Dawn Upshaw has served as muse to many. An exquisite purity of voice cries out for heavenly song. In opera, she inspires today's composers to create heroines with passionate hearts and complex souls.

But leave it to Osvaldo Golijov to, as he recently told National Public Radio, seek out the inner witch in this angelic-toned soprano. And leave it to Upshaw to let him. "Ayre," the Argentine composer's rollickingly illogical new song cycle, was written for her last year and given its local premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night.

"Ayre" is essential music for a culturally conflicted civilization. Intended as a companion piece to Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs," a once-revolutionary attempt to put the advanced techniques of 1960s new music to the service of the traditional song of various lands, Golijov's new set is a psychically anxious 40-year progress report from the folk and new music fronts.

Berio tailor-made his song arrangements for then-wife Cathy Berberian, the most innovative singer of her time, and Golijov has done the same for Upshaw. But Golijov has chosen his songs more purposefully. Folk songs are no longer just folk songs. Their political context matters.

The cycle is a kind of journey from Spain to Jerusalem, a falafel highway equivalent of the Silk Road. It is a path along which the history of Jews, Christians and Muslims has been intertwined for centuries. Cultures have been shared, but tempers have dangerously flared.

At their most arresting, Golijov's songs twist meaning. To an arrestingly beautiful Sephardic tune, a mother sings of roasting her child. Underneath an Arabic Good Friday lament, electronics swirl around an accordion, beats from a laptop lap around the bazaar, Upshaw mourns a love lost to a new culture.

We never know where we are in "Ayre" (which means "melody" or "air" in medieval Spanish), never know from song to song, from moment to moment, whether Upshaw will be the voice of angels or devils. Though most of the music is traditional, Golijov adds original melodies as well, and he turns to popular Latin fusion guitarist and songwriter Gustavo Santaolalla for two original numbers.

The 40-minute work has just recently been released on a Deutsche Grammophon CD, along with Berio's "Folk Songs," and it is already the indispensable new recording of the season. On it, Upshaw sings with a riotously expressive instrumental group called the Andalusian Dogs, which premiered "Ayre" at Carnegie Hall.

For the Disney performance, she was joined by the new music group eighth blackbird, with whom she is touring on a strange program.

The evening began with a set by Santaolalla and was followed by an instrumental piece from Derek Bermel written for eighth blackbird. Santaolalla's Latin fusion is soft-edged, simplistic (with sometimes pretentious, overly strong lyrics), but when Upshaw joined him for two numbers, she made the songs float.

Bermel, an important emerging New York composer, has his own brand of fusion. Jazz and the klezmer clarinet find their way into his music. In "Tied Shifts," he explored Bulgarian folk styles as a 21st-century Bartók might. One witnessed not so much folk tunes, but the comet's tail of folk tunes. Smeared rhythms, harmonies and instrumental combinations are left in tunes' wakes, and they light up the sky. It's exciting original music, and eighth blackbird gave it an exciting and original performance.

But the players could be annoying. The six-member ensemble regularly wins awards and raves for its superb technical playing and its extraordinary commitment. It often plays from memory, as it did in "Tied Shifts," which is impressive. The players like to hop around the stage like a choreographed rock band, and that is impressive too. But it is also way too cute and predictable, Mickey-Mousing every musical gesture. There can be, in Bermel's music, a captivating sense of the spontaneous, and all this business kills it.

For "Ayre," the players stayed put, eyes glued to their music stands. I hope, though, that they looked up at Upshaw from time to time to see how she found a different way to internalize each Golijov song.

But they also had reason not to look up. The performance was presented as a world music event, and the hall, meant as a place to communally experience music in the light, was creepily darkened. The surrounding audience appeared shadowy, almost menacing. Ugly lighting fixtures hung over the stage. And hideous curtains that might have been salvaged from an old "Leave It to Beaver" set were placed around the hall to deaden it for amplification.

Still, "Ayre" brings light to darkness. Get the CD.