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Review: Exiles, lost and found

Grammy honors Naxos' Bolcom in three key categories

By Porter Anderson

Osvaldo Golijov's suite of 11 "songs of exile" is a 2004 work given its 2005 world-premiere recording by Deutsche Grammophon.



Nominees for 2006 Best Choral Performance Grammy

  • Winner, best classical album, choral performance, contemporary composition: Bolcom: 'Songs of Innocence/Experience' (Naxos)
  • Bernstein: 'Mass' (Harmonia Mundi)
  • Lauridsen: 'Lux Aeterna' (Hyperion)
  • Penderecki: 'A Polish Requiem' (Naxos)
  • Schoenberg: Accentus (Naive)

    Nominees for 2006 Best Classical Contemporary Composition Grammy

  • Winner, best classical album, choral performance, contemporary composition: Bolcom: 'Songs of Innocence/Experience' (Naxos)
  • Golijov: 'Ayre' (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Boyer: 'Ellis Island: The Dream of America' (Naxos)
  • Rorem: 'Nine Episodes for Four Players' (Phoenix USA)
  • Franzetti: 'Corpus Evita' (Amapola)

    The 48th annual Grammy Awards show airs live at 8 p.m. ET on February 8.


    (CNN) -- If you could make an El Nino-style map that registered cultural collaborations in music, that familiar red hotspot might shift from the Pacific to another sea.

    Time and again, it's the genius of Middle Eastern, Southern European and African idioms that heat up contemporary serious music to its best boil.

    The Mediterranean moderns, of course, have a mighty icon in Mikis Theodorakis, at 80 the great Greek maestro who sat proudly on the white stones of Athens' ancient Odeon of Herod Atticus last October to hear an evening-length array of his music in the Festival of Athens' 50th year celebration. Many in his audience couldn't resist clapping as the accelerating syrtaki closed out his exuberant "Zorba" ballet suite.

    And there are Theodorakis' countrymen -- Eleni Karaindrou ("Ulysses' Gaze") and the powerful young composer Thodoris Oikonomou, who works with singer Mario Frangoulis.

    Beirut-born Gabriel Yared's intricate soundscapes for Italian and Greek settings ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," a withdrawn "Troy" score) bear a spirited kinship with Jonathan Elias' use of the late Ofra Haza's vocals in his sweeping 1999 "The Prayer Cycle." That piece also features the Qawwali work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Salif Keita of Mali.

    The Recording Academy, in recently choosing nominations for best contemporary classical competition category, brightened the Mediterranean's glow on that map with Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre" for voice and chamber ensemble. And it brought the harmonics of multiculturalism all the way home in nominating Peter Boyer's "Ellis Island: The Dream of America."

  • A note at posting time: The Grammys for best classical album, best choral performance and best classical contemporary composition have gone to the Naxos recording of William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." Those nods and an award to Tim Handley for classical producer of the year in recognition of his work on several Naxos recordings bring the label's total of wins to four, out of 15 nominations. (Read the review of the Bolcom)
  • Fresh 'Ayre'

    Born in Argentina, composer Osvaldo Golijov had Jewish parents and moved to Jerusalem and then to Philadelphia to study music. The 11 songs in his "Ayre" suite are referred to as songs of exile -- a phrase authenticated in Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's aching lyrics for "Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa," or "Be a string, water, to my guitar."

    "It's getting hard for me to remember my face in the mirrors," these aching lines of estrangement go. "I know who I was yesterday, / but who will I be tomorrow / Under the Atlantic flags of Columbus?"

    And the buzz created by Deutsche Grammophon's release of this CD isn't limited to such haunting words of loss. It's a happy slap of surprise for those who know soprano Dawn Upshaw's work.

    Known for her work in opera and art song, Nashville-born Upshaw always has moved in a kind of idiosyncratic parallel to the normal concert career with her work in John Adams' "El Nino," Messiaen's "St. Francoise d'Assise," and songs of Ravel, Stravinsky and de Falla in her CD "Girl with Orange Lips."

    But not even her "Knoxville Summer" CD (Barber, Menotti) can prepare you for the courageous release she accomplishes in this collaboration with Golijov. Hitting highs and lows that waver and wash with the sandy majesty of Petra and Oran, Upshaw has transformed herself into a sister of Haza. She deploys a sinuous vocal intelligence here that winds itself around your heart within minutes, even as you're shocked to discover the dune-shimmering subtleties of textures never heard from her before.

    Most impressive is her bratty-beautiful nasal-scrappy "Tancas serradas a muru," or "Walls are encircling the land," based on 19th-century Sardinian lyrics. Golijov sets her on a wicked gallop of itchy-accordion ululation, at once gamy and menacing: "Moderate your tyranny, Barons, / Otherwise, I swear on my life: / I'll bring you down from your horses!" You believe her, and Golijov, utterly.

    And here is Gustavo Santaolalla, the Argentine ambassador of an expansive Latin musica freed of stereotype, just nominated for an Oscar for his score for "Brokeback Mountain." In "Ayre," his "Luna" is a watery pool of reflected image, like his lyrics and music for "Sueltate las cintas" ("Untie your ribbons) a guitar-massaged moment of calm amid pounding passions.

    Ultimately, Golijov, Upshaw, Santaolalla and the ensemble Andalucian Dogs simply run far away from the inspiration Golijov credits to the late Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs." It's good to have Berio's fine suite of 11 works follow Golijov's on this CD. But it's the new work, the new voice, these new, devastating lyrics that ricochet off the stony assumptions of tradition, that make this "Ayre" so pure.

    Such an expanse of ominous, lonely diaspora you hear in the closing "Ariadna en su labirinto" ("Ariadne in her labyrinth"). "Why do you cry fair child?" these traditional Sephardic lyrics ask. "I cry," Upshaw murmurs back from so very far inside a world too precious to lose, "I cry because / you leave me."

    Coming to America

    Peter Boyer's music-theater work was premiered in 2002, recorded in 2003 and released in 2005 by Naxos.

    By contrast, Stateside composer Peter Boyer's theater piece "Ellis Island: A Dream of America" lies at the end of exile.

    Having researched the Ellis Island Oral History Project's archive of thousands of interviews with immigrants who were "processed" at Ellis Island, Boyer takes his seat on a pew with Aaron Copland, whose 1942 "Lincoln Portrait' for speaker and orchestra set a dramatic standard for this kind of concert pageantry. The same worshipful, brass-and-flute Americana established by Copland in "Appalachian Spring" and "Rodeo" is here.

    In this recording for the classical Grammy nomination leader of the year, Naxos, Broadway's Martin Charnin ("Annie") has directed actors Barry Bostwick, Blair Brown, Olympia Dukakis, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, Bebe Neuwirth and Louis Zorich in the spoken remembrances of Europeans.

    Zorich is delightful, reading the words of James Apanomith, who arrived in 1911 and had to explain to a friend's father that the Statue of Liberty didn't represent Christopher Columbus. "That don't look like Christopher Columbus. That's a lady there."

    Jackson is compelling, too, telling with composed simplicity the story of the Russian Katherine Beychock -- who in 1910 arrived in New York to meet, for the first time, her own father. "And, of course, the first thing I had seen was that lady -- the Statue of Liberty."

    The work 43-minute work concludes shortly after Jackson's monologue, with the acting ensemble delivering a choral reading of "The New Colossus," Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus' magnificent 1883 verse written to raise money for the statue's pedestal.

    Americans, of course, have spent the ensuing 123 years trying to live up to our own ethos: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And we're not good at remembering these days that that statue is a gift from the people of France, who knew things about liberté before we were a nation.

    Boyer's music underneath and between the spoken sections of the work is inspiring, sometimes bracing, never remarkable. "Derivative" may be too harsh a term. Writing something that sounds like Copland is no mean feat, and this work's point is its mission, not its music. Naxos might have offered buyers a copy of the text among the liner notes. But there are generous comments and biographies on all participating.

    In short, this work serves its purpose. There's so much to be learned from those who have become Americans by choice and by struggle. While Golijov and Upshaw have given mesmerizing voice to songs of exile, Boyer honors the "Mother of Exiles," as Lazarus named the Statue of Liberty.

    We're lucky to have both.

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