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Dawn Upshaw sings Golijov's 'Ayre'

Osvaldo Golijov
The Orange County Register

Touring with the Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, the soprano gives the folk-based work her emotional all.

Smack dab in the middle of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County's rather conservative season Monday night a new music concert broke out. There were guys in masks and moody lighting and dissonance and even - gasp - amplification. Even the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall looked different when we walked in. The sound curtains had been deployed all around the inner walls. Luckily, no one was hurt and the audience, for the most part, seemed to enjoy what it heard.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw was on hand, and audiences seem willing to follow her anywhere she wants to go. She's a disarming performer - charming, sincere, feeling - and no matter what she sings, it's always our friend Dawn up there, plumbing the ecstasies. Composers write music especially for her and even when others perform it you sense the dawning impetus. The lines always trace a silken high road of beauteous or aching emotions.

These days, Upshaw is singing a lot of Osvaldo Golijov. The popular, perhaps overhyped, Argentine composer wrote his song cycle "Ayre" for Upshaw in 2004 when she was curating a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall. Monday, she was winding up a little tour of "Ayre" with an ensemble calling itself the Orquesta Los Pelegrinos but which was actually the Grammy winning Chicago-based new music ensemble eighth blackbird with a few extra members.

Golijov's "Ayre" is world music on steroids. It takes old texts in Ladino, Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian and Spanish, and sometimes the old melodies, too, and gives them a modern coloring without replacing their essential folk qualities. The "Ayre" ensemble features a battery of percussion, flutes, clarinets, strings, French horn, guitar and ronroco, as well as a hyper-accordion (that sounds like a spaceship taking off) and a laptop, which adds cool and driving drumbeats, fuzz, reverbs, etc. At times, "Ayre" sounds like a Jewish wedding gone wild; at others, simple and plaintive and hymn-like.

The texts are generally sad, occasionally gruesome (as when, in a lullaby, a mother roasts and eats her child). "Ayre's" message is simple - a Rodney Kingish "Can we all get along?" - but it takes on added weight not only through its tender and grooving music but by the multiplicity and antiquity of its poetry: It was always and everywhere thus.

"Ayre" is more direct than sophisticated. The instruments hone closely to the melodic line, adding shimmering, thrumming or echoing decorations in a modern analog to medieval heterophony (multiple, slightly different versions of the same melody played simultaneously). All, it seems, is about the emotional curve of the vocal melody, to which Upshaw gave her usual all. She is an intimate and intense performer - up close she can be too much, but here, in a large hall, it worked. She could do it all - a nasal Middle Eastern-sounding chant, a closed-throat bawl, and elegant simplicity - with ease, but never without feeling. Her head microphone allowed her to sing at a comfortable volume, without distortion; she rarely resorted to an operatic voice, or even vibrato. All was plain but silken.

The first half of the event featured two instrumental works fascinating in their own right. Stephen Hartke's 2007 "Meanwhile - Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays," for six players, discovered new, creamy sonorities not only in extended techniques but in the subtle combinations of them. Its long, ribboned melodies were outlined in beautiful pastels and even its driving rhythms and pops and squeaks revealed washes of soft colors.

Then, a classic of new music, George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae," for amplified flute, cello and piano, written in 1971, before these players, I would guess, were even born. The three musicians donned black blindfolds in keeping with the composer's theatrical instructions. "Vox" remains an effective piece - quasi-religious, full of awed major chords, mysterious squiggles, chanting utterances and meandering toggles, all played over a blank canvas of silence. It's almost merely a sound effects piece, but its Zen-like calm and heartfelt wonder save it from being just that.

It only remains to say that all of the performances were extremely well prepared and executed with poise - just the way all new music needs to be heard.