Occupying a position of prominence at the heart of Syria: A Living History, the vibrant UNESCO-sponsored exhibition currently on view at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, stands one of several showcases that challenges an onlooker’s conception of time, place and humanity. Inside, nestled side by side, four objects are displayed — a stone vase depicting an ancient two-faced god; a bronze ewer with a cocky rooster handle; a lustre-glazed ceramic bowl bearing the image of a seated ruler; a graceful copper candlestick inlaid with intricate silver Arabic script. Dates of manufacture range from 3000 BCE to the Crusades, a span of well over 4000 years.
The curatorial approach informing this measured collection of simple, albeit stunning domestic objects is nothing less than startling. Shunning the traditional museum schematic of strictly observed linear timelines, precious pieces here and elsewhere in the exhibition are freed from conventional rules of presentation. Entire millennia are bridged in a single gallery, often under the same shared pane of glass. Syria is, quite clearly, seen to be a culture unbounded, enduring, beyond neat classification.
Across a sprawling outdoor plaza, another journey to the centre of identity is being undertaken at the museum’s bustling Ismaili Centre in the form of indie collective Against the Grain Theatre’s latest audacious stage work, a charged performance of a contemporary song cycle by Argentinian-born Osvaldo Golijov. Commissioned in 2003 by Carnegie Hall at the urging of acclaimed American soprano Dawn Upshaw, Ayre (“air” or “melody” in medieval Spanish) compresses multiple centuries into a fluid continuum. Charting an imagined odyssey from 15th century Andalucia to Jerusalem by way of the Levant, Golijov mirrors three historically intertwined cultures, Jewish, Christian and Arab. Heartbreak and defiance, yearning and despair, all are expressed in jolts of electrifying emotion.
The congruence between the composer’s spirited musical wanderings and the exhibition of Syrian treasures is admittedly a good deal less than self-evident on first reflection but the sense of shared cultural geography, of being drawn into a common force field has, ultimately, the memorable effect of intensifying the impact of both artistic offerings. Ballads, laments, pop tunes, snatches of spoken poetry, all occupy a succession of virtual acoustic showcases in Ayre’s record of the past. Songs old and new replace iconic artefacts, each fresh melody communicating its own distinct story while still part of a larger continuum.
Golijov’s music gives history a voice.
Against the Grain divides the events of the evening into two segments, the first comprising three unrelated Golijov works, all predating Ayre’s New York premiere.
Moving from point to point within the Ismaili Centre’s handsome communal interior, music stands marking precise locales, an exuberant string quartet drawn from the Glenn Gould School opens the concert with a shattering performance of Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk. A harrowing echo from the Holocaust, the dissonant chronicle written between 1992 and 2001, immortalizes the childhood victims of the Nazi death camp at Terezin with savage, slashing chords. Ultimately morphing into sombre themes that speak of meditation and prayer, the piece concludes with a haunted, broken Sephardic dance motif. Playing, like Golijov’s raging music, is shocking, traumatic, brilliant.
Lúa Descolorida (“Moon, colorless”), a sad, wistful 19th century love poem written in archaic Galician dialect brightly sung by soloist Adanya Dunn with simple, shining grace, provides much-needed catharsis.
Adorned with soaring melisma, the final pre-intermission offering, Tenebrae (“Darkness”), evokes a host of influences in Golijov’s assessment, Catholic Holy Week to illuminated medieval manuscripts to NASA earth photos. A single voice, here lyric soprano Ellen McAteer, recites a simple series of six consecutive Hebrew letters casting a strangely mystical spell while the fine student ensemble led by violinist Barry Shiffman weaves a tapestry of ornate harmonies.
As precisely targeted as the first half of the program, aptly named, Ayre: An Evening of Osvaldo Golijov may be, it is the headline work that we have come to experience.
Ayre thrills. AtG artistic director Joel Ivany’s spare, pristine dramatization is all conquering, a concert production of major importance, a flawless synchronicity of music and theatre. As the lone singer actor in the spotlight, soprano Miriam Khalil is spellbinding, embodying an infinity of meaning in a quick fleeting gesture, a snap of the head, a ferocious curl of the lip, her voice at turns lustrous and radiant, savage and snarling. The two take us on a breath-taking ride.
Ayre’s orchestral demands, though not particularly convoluted, are demonstrably idiosyncratic when it comes to instrumentation. Flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, guitar, harp, viola, cello, bass, accordion, laptop, all play an essential role. The diversity and quality of musicianship arrayed across the rear of the stage is extraordinary.
The complete cycle of songs, all of which have been labelled by Golijov as folk-tunes whether plucked from antiquity or Middle Eastern pop charts, total 11 discrete numbers, most quoted directly from pre-existing melodies, several modified or adapted, a few entirely original. All deserve careful listening. A goodly clutch warrants particular attention.
Mañanita de San Juan (“Dawn, St. John’s Day”), an authentic Sephardic street call in which a particularly haughty Crusader meets his end at the hands of a Moorish princess is given an engaging air of convincing legitimacy by Golijov despite the freshness of his music. Khalil sings the tale with sly, delicious relish. Clarinettist Juan Gabriel Olivares’ klezmer riffs wail.
Tancas serradas a muru (“Walls are encircling the land”), a traditional Sardinian lament strikes a particular note of urgency in today’s inflammatory political climate.
The tender Lebanese Christian Easter anthem, Wa Habibi (“My love”), set by Golijov as a pivot to Ayre’s more exotic Middle Eastern sections, is given a particularly tender rendition.
Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa’ (“Be a string, water, to my guitar”), a lonely cry of loss and suffering by contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish stirringly recited by Khalil in Arabic, an altogether new approach, finds resonance in the classic 12th century Hebrew prayer Yah, annah entza’cha (“O God, where shall I find you?”). Sueltate las cintas (“Untie your ribbons”) written by Golijov’s friend and collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla, Academy Award winning composer of Brokeback Mountain, adds an additional layer of timeless texture.
Invited by Ivany to address the audience on opening night, the shy, softspoken composer remarked, eyes twinkling, “Nations play a lot of different roles in history. Conflicts, they stay the same. Only the actors are different.”
By promoting Golijov’s vision of culture as a permeable wrapper, Against the Grain Theatre has injected a much needed dose of optimism into these uncertain times. Ayre is filled with spirit, soaring, crushed, defiant. But hope like Golijov’s music has a way of insinuating itself into the soul. We need to hear the message. Now more than ever.