Music Review: Dawn Upshaw

02.24.08
Osvaldo Golijov, Golijov's Ayre-Song-cycle featuring Dawn Upshaw
Discover Richmond

Dawn Upshaw is one of the truly great, if not most versatile, sopranos of this generation. She has sung the standards, but truly specializes in the music of our time.

The Jewish Argentine Osvaldo Golijov (pronounced golly-hov) is one of the most heralded composers of the 21st century.

Bring the two together, as was done Friday night at the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall, for "Ayre" ("Air") and you have something special.

Upshaw would in turn seduce, lament, dance, shout and bear tiny cymbals in hand. She needed all the forces at her command.

"Ayre" is a collection of 11 songs woven together in collaboration with an 11-piece instrumental ensemble. Golijov has drawn on folk music, mostly from the 15th-century Spain of Sephardic Jews, Arabs and Christians. Multicultural diversity, indeed.

One could hear the clarinet squeals and bouncing rhythms of a klezmer band (with a hint of rock'n' roll) in the snarling "Walls Are Encircling the Land"; Jewish calls to prayer in "God, Where Shall I Find You?"; the inevitable (for Spain) strumming of a guitar in "Be a String, Water, to My Guitar"; and plaintive yearning in the first song, "Dawn of St. John's Day."

Upshaw alternately wove across the stage and physically acted out her parts with profound expression before the band of musicians, Orquesta Los Marranos. This orchestra comprised the six members of the Grammy Award-winning eighth blackbird, in residence at the University of Richmond, and others -- many of whom were on hand for the premiere of "Ayre" in 2004 at Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall.

These included a manifold collection of gongs and percussion, accordion, harp, flute, clarinet and a laptop computer that synthesized and threw back Upshaw's voice in varied forms of echo, particularly notable in the closing "Ariadne in Her Labyrinth."

But rarely did the band drown out Upshaw's voice.

Members of eighth blackbird uncorked a couple of their favorites to open the concert. They included Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile, Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays," which premiered here in November, and George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" ("Voice of the Whale" (1971)) for amplified flute, cello and piano.

Hartke has created a sweeping soundscape, made especially effective by the use of a huge battery of percussion, including wood blocks, cowbells, small cymbals, water gongs and piano softened by mutes inserted into the lower strings to create the sounds of the Vietnamese hammered dulcimer. More Far Eastern glamour was provided by a gonglike instrument called the "flexatone gamelan." This is world music with a capital W.

The amplified instruments of flutist Timothy Munro, cellist Nicholas Photinos and pianist Lisa Kaplan (who later became versatile percussionist in "Ayre") were bathed in greenish blue lights on a darkened stage for "Voice of the Whale." In many ways, this was a highlight of this memorable night.

Munro alternately played and sang into and outside his flute, Photinos created whalelike sounds by sliding up and down the fingerboard and using harmonics on his cello, and Kaplan plucked and occasionally pounded the keyboard as the three took the audience on this imaginary journey into the briny deep. No puppets needed, only a monster humpback.