The discs in question were both by Osvaldo Golijov, one of the Chicago Symphony’s composers-in-residence, and featured soprano Dawn Upshaw. Ayre made it to 21, and Ainadamar, Golijov’s opera on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca, was 22. An astonishing 84 per cent of the Ayre discs were sold in Chicago, and the number was 63 per cent for the Ainadamar ones, according to a spokeswoman for the record-label Deutsche Grammophon. That doesn’t happen every day, so what happened? We wrote about Upshaw and Golijov that week, but don’t have that kind of clout. It takes a bit of explaining.
Upshaw continues to recover from breast cancer, and only recently returned to performing. She gave a recital in New York in May that got a strong review, with the Times‘ chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini writing that “[h]er voice sounded warm, full and lovely.” She then went on to Los Angeles to sing Golijov’s Three Songs with the LA Philharmonic, and that concert left the LA Times’s Mark Swed writing that the work is “too profound to describe in words.” (”Give it a shot,” suggested a friend of mine.) Swed also noted that her voice sounded even more powerful than it had previously.
Then, on June 4, she came to Chicago to sing Ayre at the Harris Theater with musicians from the Chicago Symphony on the CSO’s MusicNOW series. The concert’s 1,500 seats were sold out. Ayre blends Sephardic, Arabic and Spanish texts and juxtaposes klezmer and, broadly speaking, Middle Eastern music, all put together with a keen sense of compositional craft. This is Golijov’s signature, to blend cultures in such a way that they coexist without losing their individuality.
Upshaw sang with fierce determination through the 40-minute work, marshaling her strength for the final songs. Golijov asks for the singer and musicians to be amplified, along with having a laptop artist there to provide electronica-sounding noises, but Upshaw gave it a star turn. She raged against an invading army in “Tancas Serradas a Muru,” (”Walls Are Encircling the Land”) and that song was used as an encore when the exuberant, overwhelmed, audience demanded one. After the concert, the audience was buzzing at the reception.
The next week, the Ayre recording appeared back on the charts, along with Ainadamar, with those great sales figures coming out of Chicago.
Golijov’s Three Songs will be released on July 10 on a recording called Oceana, with Upshaw singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Robert Spano conducting, the same team that recorded Ainadamar. Critics flipped out when Ayre was released, and after listening to the haunting songs, I predict we’ll do the same with Oceana. Like Ayre, it sounds like nothing else any other composer is writing, and features some of the most committed performances you’re likely to hear. Upshaw’s wordless singing at the beginning of the second song Lua Descolorida comes from a haunted place that few are willing to enter. The disc also features vocalist Luciano Souza singing the title work, the Kronos Quartet on the heartbreaking Tenebrae, and, again, Upshaw. Pre-order it now.