The Dream of al-Andalus

La Convivencia: A 500-year period during the early to late Middle Ages when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony throughout the southern Iberian Peninsula.

A land of tolerance and respect steeped in a tradition of fundamental religious indulgence. A fertile artistic nexus, a place of thriving pluralism and rich intellectual cross-pollination. A serene tranquil kingdom ruled by a succession of enlightened philosopher caliphs. A utopia on earth. Yet many historians, particularly those writing after World War II, have seriously questioned whether such an idyllic state brimming with acceptance and understanding ever essentially existed at all as an organized collective given the frequency of sectarian violence and flashes of anti-Semitism that wracked its great cities. The opposing reality of the Church-sponsored Reconquista would sweep away the last remnants of coexistence. Islam would be forced to abandon its once glorious Spanish settlements. Jews would be exiled.

But the dream of al-Andalus, the idea of a world beyond worldly strife, a fabulous tapestry of lush, intensely expressive human values draped across a sweeping landscape fills the imagination with hope as it has done for over a millenium.

Conjuring a series of vivid sound paintings teeming with life and longing, exile and loss, visiting composer Osvaldo Golijov brought his unique, urgent transcultural perspective to Koerner Hall late last week, a dynamic,  articulate launch to the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival. Born into a Jewish family of Romanian immigrants in Argentina, Golijov’s catalogue, comprised of both commissioned and self-directed works — vocal, chamber and orchestral — is strikingly eclectic. Polished harmony and melody infused with insistent folk, classical and pop-influenced motifs result in a highly affective listening experience.

Opening the two-part concert with Mariel, an evocative Brazilian-flavoured elegy scored for marimba and cello written in memory of a friend, Mariel Stubrin, killed in an auto accident in Patagonia, the program gently segued to a wistful Christian hymn recalling Catholic Holy Week. With its explicit echoes of the approaching darkness of the Crucifixion and ultimate promise of Resurrection, Tenebrae, a pensive cantata for string quartet and clarinet sensitively sung by the evening’s featured Golijov interpreter, Miriam Khalil, wove a reverent, palpably mystical spell. K’vakarat followed, an impassioned plea to the Divine based on a sacred Jewish prayer, the role of cantor given haunting voice in this all-instrumental iteration by clarinetist Juan Gabriel Olivares. Accompanied by an equally eloquent string quartet led by violinist Barry Shiffman, the piece slowly gathered momentum, exploding into a flurry of slashing chords shading to eventual surrender and quietude.

And then came Ayre and Khalil in full heart stopping voice, tendering a performance of great depth and shattering emotional legitimacy, loving and ferocious, explosive and contained.

An electrifying suite for soprano and contemporary consort comprised of eleven discrete selections, Golijov leaps time and place, spanning the medieval to today, Spain to Palestine. Channeling past and present, the composer layers a kaleidoscope of form and colour on an at times earthy, at times ethereal canvas shimmering with legends and parables, ballads and anthems.

Something of a signature piece for Khalil who has sung Ayre in six different cities, Buenos Aires to Toronto via Banff; Ottawa; Rockport, Massachusetts and Victoria, the acclaimed Canadian soloist raised as a child in Damascus was every bit as abundantly invested in the material as when last seen locally at the Ismaili Centre in November 2016. Perhaps even more charged with energy, in fact, more impelled by the physical implications of music and texts.

Partnered by a compelling if eccentric eleven-player ensemble — percussion, accordion, harp and electronic laptop sampler included — the stage virtually crackled with energy, musicians and singer visibly sparking off one another as they powered through a blistering range of hyper emotion.

Gathering the mounting anticipation around her, Khalil flung herself into the opening number, Mañanita de San Juan (Morning of St. John’s Day), a wry, darkly entertaining Sephardic folktale.

The second in a pair of introductory songs written in Ladino, an ancient Judeo-Spanish language, Y Una Madre Comió Asado (A Mother Roasted Her Child) yielded an abrupt change of pace, wrapping the hall in stillness and paradox. Set to an exquisitely delicate Andalusian melody, the distinctly disquieting lullaby inspired by the prophet Jeremiah’s anguish on witnessing the Babylonian destruction of  Jerusalem simultaneously mesmerized and unsettled. Sinking to her knees in a pose of unrestrained grief, Khalil became every mother of every slaughtered son throughout the ages, a deeply touching testament to the monstrousness of war.

An air of timelessness and universality breathed life into a good number of other selections on offer during the evening, perhaps nowhere more evident than in Golijov’s incendiary arrangement of a traditional 18th century Sardinian protest song, Tancas Serradas a Muru (Walls Are Encircling the Land). Originally intended as a bitter commentary on the formidable West Bank security perimeter, the simmering rage of a single rough voice railing against power and oppression, a pulsing, incendiary orchestral motif driving the speaker forward, resonated far beyond any narrow, purely historical context.

So too the twinned voices of Palestinian laureate Mahmoud Darwish, verses extracted from the closing stanzas of his poignant exile poem, Kun Li-Guitari Wataran Ayyuha Al-Maa’ (Be a String, Water, to My Guitar), and medieval Jewish poet Yehudah Halevy “dialoguing across time”, in the composer’s words, Arabic and Hebrew movingly overlaid. Yah, Anna Emtzacha (Oh, Where Shall I find You?), Khalil sung-chanted, doubling herself by way of clever pre-recorded playback, summoning the eternal, boundless pain of lost identity.

Concluding with a gentle, lyrical blend of traditional and original Sephardic melodies, Ariadna en su Laberinto (Ariadne in Her Labyrinth), Golijov’s long sumptuous lines of undulating melisma translated into a swirl of interpretative Middle Eastern-sourced movement, Khalil danced into the final fade out.

Concert producer Against the Grain Theatre has gifted Toronto with a decade of startlingly memorable presentations, the last, it often feels, more impactful than the preceeding. Resonance is, of course, largely the property of the heart. But timeliness is quite another matter. This soaring, expressly dramatic Ayre spoke to both perspectives. For a brief shining moment on an endlessly rainy winter’s night, the dream of al-Andalus lit up the darkness.