Leading off from the demanding violin I seat with the first notes of a blazing sixgun salute to Florence, and ending the concert with a quiet viola passage in the poignant fadeout of Oswaldo Golijov’s Ayre, triple threat Barry Shiffman—violinist, violist, artistic director—trumpeted (so to speak) an eclectic and exuberant new era at Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center Friday night.
Tchaikovsky may have absorbed the Florentine atmosphere during his vacation in Tuscany, but he could not escape the winds of the Great Steppe or the earworm melodies of Dvořák. His beloved string sextet Souvenir de Florence partakes little of the noble, sometimes sedate rituals of the string quartet, rather it demands competitive virtuosic striving from its six participants. Shiffman and Danny Koo violins, Roberto Diaz and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt violas, and Andres Diaz and Clive Greensmith cellos complied in full measure. In untucked turquoise shirt, enhanced by the blue and magenta theatrical lighting, Shiffman, with his committed cohort, grabbed those of us who had them by our lapels in a marvelously brash, relentless account. The first movement wound up with a breathtaking accelerando that might turn out to have been an exemplar for the new leader’s approach to both musicmaking and program planning.
The collective take on the Adagio cantabile e con moto second movement stinted on neither the motoric nor the cantabile. Shiffman again led the relaxed charge, taking Romantic excess to heights of expression, which his colleagues fully met, especially cellist Diaz, who projected lyrical swagger. Another Allegro follows, this one moderato, but that applied only to moderating the tempo; in no way did the artists dampen their Dvořákian ardency. Everyone dug in and imbibed deeply of the score’s purple, even the lighting designer. The concluding Allegro vivace shows Tchaikovsky’s Germanic fuguing undiminished by his Italian sojourn. By the end, Rockport had become a musical Dodge City of tune rustlers.
The Shalin Liu stage may have been the venue for other theatrical enterprises, including more-traditional takes on things Sephardic, but has it ever tried to contain such an explosively incandescent affair? In Osvaldo Golijov’s embrace, music encompasses worlds, or teeming multitudes, and he collects and improves existing material much as Berio, Kodaly did … or maybe any composer! Ayre, an orchestrally accompanied cycle of 11 songs, ostensibly inhabits an 18th-century Mediterranean mise en scène, which mingled Spanish, Arabic, Ladino, Sardinean, and Hebrew cultures with relative tolerance considering some of the languages were brought by invaders. Golijov’s own childhood, in 1960s Argentina, an unmelting crucible of Jewish liturgical music, Klezmer, tango, and European classical, can been taken as the inspiration. Written in 2003 for the particular talents of Dawn Upshaw, the cycle has taken on more-vivid life through the ministrations of the Lebanese-Canadian mezzo Miram Khalil and her director-husband Joel Ivany. Khalil brings native speech patterns to Arabic recitation as well as a Victoria de los Angeles cum Judy Collins style to the lullabies and lamentations that characterize the genre-busting work. Of Khalil’s embrace Golijov writes, “And then a miracle happens …. I cannot even begin to express the emotion I feel when she sings Ayre. It’s almost as if she and it were born for each other …. Of course she channels Farouz in the Arab songs, but she [also] is the mother and the shepherd and the odalisque….” Commanding the stage with diva gestures and blocking devices with the collaboration of Ivany, Khalil could have carried off the traditional songs, street cries, and recitations alone, with no one else onstage to back her up. But Golijov magically glues the episodic fragments into a 50-minute arc through his sonorous accompanying ensemble: laptop (layers and effects), hyper-accordion, percussion, harp, flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, viola. He summons his own time in a way that the timeless singing did not. Indeed, James Sommerville, who has worked with Golijov for decades, characterized Ayre to us afterward as “the most apposite and significant and moving work of our era.” Other professionals in the audience reported similar reactions, whether circulating remembrance of things traditionally Jewish in their blood, or vanilla.
To make its plea for tolerance in a world of walls and conflicts, it set some strange words: about a mother roasting and eating her beloved son, another mother’s lullaby putting a child to sleep before the arrival of a lover, as well as calls to prayer and expressions of romantic and religious passion. If the mostly tasteful amplification, stage monitors, Jason Hand’s colored lights, and jazzy work from the band placed us in the realm of nightclub, it was a deluxe one. Some of the sonorities still resonating for me are the sub-bass and pitch bending of Michael Ward Bergeman’s hyper-accordion, the unconventional duetting of guitarist Claudio Ragazzi and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi, Todd Palmer’s wailing klezmer clarinet with the more sedate but still jazzy French horn work of Sommerville. Jeremey Flower, commanding a collection of loops and sounds (the polyphonic tracks which Khalil had laid down worked particularly well with her live singing), also conducted the band when Khalil was not doing so. The way Flower led 9/8 with a modified four puzzled at times, but he kept the ensemble tight and gave ample space for Khalil’s flights of wailing, shrieking, and emotion-laden songs without words. With great arms, great voice, and a knockout electric green, red, and gold gown, she would be the leading ornament in any musical seraglio.
The Rockport public enthused muchly, and the show certainly augurs a successful, and never boring run for the new maestro.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer