Review: Upshaw finds perfect expression with Golijov in Aspen recital |

Review: Upshaw finds perfect expression with Golijov in Aspen recital

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Wednesday’s concert in Harris Hall celebrated the utterly gripping, sensuous, powerful, soul-grabbing music of the ethnically omnivorous composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Billed as a recital by soprano Dawn Upshaw, it opened with The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, featuring the exuberant klezmer clarinet playing of David Krakauer. Then, after intermission, came the song cycle Ayre. Led by Golijov himself, and aided by superb contributions in an ensemble of faculty artists that included a couple of old Golijov hands and a sprinkling of students, the 42-minute piece simply swept the audience away.

Eddies of emotions continually swirl under the sweet and savory surface of Golijov’s music. A modern composer unafraid of sumptuous, luscious harmonies, his long melodies caress the ear. Rhythms settle into a pattern and burrow deep into a listener’s soul. Golijov can punctuate with moments of harshness or bitterness, but something grateful to the ear will arrive soon.

Golijov’s musical language deepened, expanded and comfortably embraced more elements between Isaac, written in 1997, and Ayre, composed in 2004. In the first piece, the clarinet bursts free of the strings’ texture into independent klezmer wailings, sensationally played by Krakauer. In the second, every one of the 11 instruments gets moments in the spotlight.

Upshaw’s fierce intelligence and supple voice find perfect expression in Golijov’s music. In Ayre, she prowls the stage like a rock musician, often demonstrating close attention to the instrumental soloists surrounding her. The freedom of movement seems to liberate her voice, here pinching it nasally for effect, there reducing it to a growl, in climactic moments opening into a gloriously pure, clear soprano sound. At no time did she sound like an opera singer slumming. Her amplified voice became the music, and she was clearly loving it.

Ayre somehow melds the folk music of Jews, Christians and Arabs of late 15th-century southern Spain into contemporary orchestrations without losing their sense of authenticity. Golijov adds extra depth to their power, using electronics to bend the sound without breaking it. Golijov makes a statement with music about how much these cultures overlap even while their people still can’t live together in peace. Ayre’s Oriental moifs fit smoothly, whether the melodic source is old or Golijov’s own invention. In the end, the music triumphs.

The text relies on deceptively simple folk songs, love songs and lullabies. Upshaw speaks softly in the centerpiece, a powerful lamentation, “Be a String, Water, to My Guitar,” repeating the line, “Conquerors come, conquerors, go.” She lets her voice rise into extended melismas on Oriental scales, sometimes singing against her own recorded voice. It’s mesmerizing.

The unique ensemble deploys violin, cello, bass, flute, horn, clarinet, harp, guitar, plus a percussionist focusing on “world” drums and shakers (not cymbals or mallet instruments), a hyper-accordion that can make swooping sounds and a musician identified as a laptop player (usually Jeremy Flower, Golijov’s collaborator on this piece, but here Golijov himself). Among the many memorable solo moments from the ensemble were Bruce Bansby’s echo on bass of the hypnotic Sephardic tune in “Una madre comio asado,” and guitarist Benjamin Pila’s sensitive framing of “Sueltate las cintas.”

Rhythm defines Ayre as much as any element. Upshaw uses finger cymbals to punctuate the first song, “Dawn of St. John’s Day,” and the introduction and interludes to the sixth song, “Wa Habibi” (“My Love”), erupt like a belly-dance band on steroids. The contrast between these interludes and Upshaw singing the pure, soulful, sinuous melody couldn’t have been more bracing. Finally, the extended final Arabic song, “Ariadne in her labyrinth,” erodes the rhythm, and the music fades.

The music making was just as brilliant Tuesday night in the tent, when pianist Yefim Bronfman coaxed colors and textures from a standard Steinway that brought the music of Beethoven, Schumann, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Balakirev to life as few of today’s pianists can. Bronfman can electrify with volume, but Tuesday’s recital proved just how versatile and rich his musical palette is.

Alternately moody, reflective, yearning and passionate, in Bronfman’s hands Schumann’s Fantasy in C major felt as if the composer were on the spot improvising it for us. Its freshness and spontaneity was utterly beguiling. Beethoven’s Sonata “Quasi una fantasia” amply demonstrated how beautifully Bronfman can dial back the energy to make the piano sing, only to explode into virtuosity in the next moment.

After intermission, the Aspen weather gods again demonstrated their apparent antipathy toward Russian music. After pelting the tent with a heavy shower before Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony Sunday, a ferocious hailstorm Tuesday drowned out much of the finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Hailstones the size of small grapes peppered the tent and were clearly visible in silhouette against the evening light, sluicing into huge piles aside the structure.

It’s too bad, because Bronfman was in his element, fashioning Prokofiev’s rhythms into something shapely and slithery, not just punchy. After a 10-minute rain delay, the game continued with a somewhat tentative Dumka by Tchaikovsky and the finger-busting Islamey, Oriental Fantasy by Balakirev, a glorious display of pianistic fireworks. For an encore, a lovely contrapuntal bit of Scarlatti sent everyone home with a smile. And the sun was shining again.

Bronfman is back Sunday to play Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Festival Orchestra program led by Peter Oundjian. The piano parade continues with the youthful Lise de la Salle playing early Prokofiev Friday evening on a Chamber Orchestra concert led by James Conlon and the willful Simone Dinnerstein’s recital Saturday. Those who love both opera and piano will have to choose between that and the final performance of Britten’s rarely heard but moving The Rape of Lucretia at the Wheeler Opera House.

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