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Soprano Upshaw, contemporary composition impress at Benaroya Hall

02.29.08
Osvaldo Golijov
Seattle Times

The Seattle Symphony's "Subscriber Extras" can be real gems - certainly true on Friday night when one of the great singers of our time intersected with an amazing chamber ensemble and three living composers.

Dawn Upshaw performed in a work from one of those composers, Osvaldo Golijov. His "Arye" headlined a Benaroya Hall program whose first half featured chamber musicians from the group Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, in varying combinations, impressing with a new work by Stephen Hartke and one from the early 1970s by George Crumb, who was a teacher to both other composers.

The Hartke piece, called "Meanwhile," is meant to evoke Asian puppet theater. The bending singsong metallic percussion that Western ears only hear in Chinese opera set the tone for a dreamlike, pleasurable stretching of sonic expectations. In George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" (the voice of the whales), the sliding effects on the cello and the strumming directly on the piano strings produced some remarkable imitations of nature.

Then came Golijov's "Ayre," both an amazing piece of music and an amazing statement of unified humanity. The Argentine-born composer, whose parents are eastern European Jews, uses 15th-century pre-expulsion Spain as a musical archetype for Christians, Arabs, and Jews living in harmony. The music in "Ayre" draws on all these traditions, and deliberately bends them into each other so that they can all dance together. The 11-song cycle merges romance, dance, and the simple beauty of folk songs.

Abandoning all diva pretense, Upshaw fearlessly used nasal tones, electronic overlays, and simple vocal purity to recreate the rich variety of scenes. And there was such energy from the instrumentalists that a few times it was difficult to hear Upshaw.

Nowhere was this live energy greater than in the sixth song of the cycle, "Wa Habibi," based on a traditional Christian Arab Easter song. Interspersed with Upshaw's tear-jerking lyricism and the "hyper-accordion" (which sounds like it has been keeping bad company with a Wurlitzer and a Theremin), the ensemble breaks into a kind of Sephardic funk. If that sounds like it would appeal to only an esoteric audience, the truth is that anyone with a pulse must love it. This moment, like the entire venture, was nothing short of magic.