CD Review: Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ayre”

Miriam Khalil Offers a Definitive Performance of Golijov’s Modern Classic

By Freddy Dominguez

Toronto-based chamber opera company Against the Grain Theater has launched a new record label. I can’t think of  better start to such a venture than this recording of Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle, “Ayre.” The work captures some of the company’s central ideals: beauty, relevance, and innovation.

This ravishing live recording by soprano Miriam Khalil and a top-notch group of soloists is as powerful as Dawn Upshaw’s sublime 2005 premiere recording. It is a reminder of how vital Golijov’s oeuvre can be and is.

Eclectic Music

Golijov’s work blends the traditions of classical music, klezmer, tango, and more. This syncretism has helped shake the “classical” canon from its complacency.  The trick has been to blend various forms and styles in a way that serves the drama and avoids crass gimmickry. “Ayre” epitomizes these virtues.

“Ayre” is a meditation on Christian, Muslim, and Jewish interactions in the Mediterranean from medieval times to today. The work is inspired by the intertwined cultures of medieval Islamic Iberia (al-Andalus) with gestures toward eighteenth century Sardinia, modern Palestine, and elsewhere along the way. The cycle is sung (and occasionally recited) in Hebrew, Ladino, Castilian, Sardinian, and Arabic based on very old texts and the score consists largely of old folk tunes re-arranged.

Magic is evoked by juxtaposing different traditional elements with occasionally surprising instrumentation.

Soprano Meets Challenges 

Golijov has generally felt an affinity for the female voice, but just as much as he loves it he challenges it. Though the vocal line here is not taxing for a classically-trained singer, the linguistic and interpretive demands more than make up for it. Performers are asked to put on different dramatic masks and are asked to hover– credibly– between classical vocal standards and something that sounds folkloric, immediate, earthy.    

Miriam Khalil is clearly at home in European and a range of other musical traditions. Her performance on this album shows her to be more than a singer: she is an elemental force. There are no missteps here as each song is performed with dramatic depth, a nuanced understanding of the range of emotions and tones required by poetry and music.  

Key Highlights

This album is filled with special moments, but here I’ll just mention the most striking tracks.  

Khalil starts with a powerful rendition of “Mañanita de San Juan,” a Sephardic romance about a battle between Moors and Christians that shifts to the more intimate story of a marriage proposal by an enemy princess to a captive and the captive’s ultimate execution after his refusal. Khalil’s rendition offers the appropriate blend of urgency at the start turned to more intimate emotions expressed through throbbing melismas toward the end of the narrative.

“Una madre comio a su hijo” is another Sepahardic song after “Jeremiah’s Lamentation” that tells the horrifying story of a mother who is confronted by the child she is about to eat. The meaning can be taken literally or metaphorically, but Khalil’s reading makes either heart-breaking. She sings with such tonal surety, such microscopic shading so as to mesmerize and move the listener.

“Tancas Serradas a Muro” is based on eighteenth-century text and music by Francesco Ignazio Mannu. The Sardinian song tells of a siege and Khalil rips through the text with ecstatic grunts, wails, menacing caterwauling.

“Nani” is nominally a Sephardic lullaby though it ends as a song of scorn against an unfaithful lover. Khalil sings it sweetly throughout but adds heft to her voice, offers a more operatic sound, and becomes just matronly enough to highlight the maturity and menace of the situation.

“Wa habibi” starts with a whopping accordion and continues with a high octane take on traditional Christian and Muslim melodies until the Christian Arab Easter text interferes. The singer dolefully laments the fall of a once-righteous man. This is an exercise in terraced dynamics worthy of Handel. Khalil finds a way to suck us into a realm of sweetness, cleansing the palate from the preceding electronic, almost techno, overload.

“Aiini Taqttiru” is another Christian Arab Easter song about trying to achieve fulfillment in God. Here Kahlil utters the text crisply, spitting out words with a forwardness that pushes against sacrality.  She spews sounds from her chest to create raw immediacy.

“Yah, Anna Emtzacha” is arguably the best part of the song-cycle. It is a twelfth-century Sephardic text about the ongoing search for God set to music based on Sephardic calls to prayer. Here Golijov is at his most inventive, mixing pre-recorded sections, spoken word, and Khalil’s live singing.  There is something transgressive about a woman taking up this ancient text and this ancient calling ritual with such assured force, which such thickly poured sounds.

The last song is the only one in the cycle that does not work for me. The poetry of “Ariadna en su laberinto”  is short and simple: “Why do you cry, fair child?/ Why do you cry, fair child?/ I cry as you leave me.” To my ears, the music is too big, too bawdy, too brusque for these delicate words. Still, Khalil does great things as she leaps into operatic heights and sings long melismatic lines with solid technique and primal force.

A Timeless Work

“Ayre” is a timely, maybe even a timeless, piece. Golijov himself suggests as much on the last track which captures comments made to the live audience. He argues that the ancient hues of the music and poetry speak to the fundamentals of human nature. He says “conflicts and beauties stay the same” over the long course of history even if actors change over time.  

Much of “Ayre” goes back to a medieval period of so-called “convivencia” (something like coexistence) of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Spain (after the Islamic conquest of 711 AD/ 92 AH). For all the peaceful and fruitful interactions of the time, it was also a period of war and violence defined by various forms of un-belonging. This song cycle does not give audiences a narrative arc, but allows us to peak into the tears that moisten the predicament. Here we have men and women suffering alienation from their God, from loved ones, and from humanity itself in the grip of war. In the end, this is a piece about exile, about life on the margins, about its violence and about its consequences on the spirit of men and women.   

This performance took place shortly of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Golijov makes the expected nod at the fact, gesturing at the relevance of his work in the wake of base nationalism and the success of racism and prejudice.

Interestingly, he suggests that “Ayre” is a product of the (pre-Trump) American milieu in which he wrote it: the land where cultural intermingle continues to be a painful process. At the time he might not have imagined just how relevant his music would continue to be in the United States at a historical juncture when many accept the inhumanity of caged children, the carnage of mass shootings, growing anti-semitism, and so many different forms of barbarism cloaked under the guise of American civility and exceptionalism.

There is no better vehicle than music to render the humanity of displacement and mutual incomprehension. This album, this work, allows us to meditate on beauty and tragedy and even the beauty in tragedy. It reminds us that there is nothing easy about living in a realm of diversity; that its traumas are visceral and historical and that to imagine otherwise is to suffer from the unfeeling, unknowing blight of willful ignorance or arrogance so bloated as to exclude the possibility of empathy.


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