Since Miriam Khalil’s serendipitous meeting with Osvaldo Golijov at the Banff Centre in 2016, she has made a signature piece out of the composer’s song cycle, Ayre. For a while, Ayre was a Dawn Upshaw piece, the unofficial territory of the lithe-voiced American soprano who, in her prime, was a muse for the world’s living composers. It was Upshaw who sang Ayre on its 2005 definitive recording with Andalucian Dogs.
Now, in a gorgeous apples-to-oranges comparison, Ayre also belongs to Khalil. Since her first Toronto performance, presented at the Ismaili Centre by Against the Grain Theatre in late 2016, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano has sung the mountainous work worldwide. Her Ayre: Live, a new definitive recording on par with Upshaw’s, was nominated for a Juno Award in 2019.
Like a Canadian homecoming of sorts, Khalil’s Ayre came back to Toronto this weekend, the centrepiece in an all-Golijov concert at Koerner Hall to kick off the Royal Conservatory of Music’s annual 21C Festival. Even for a festival dedicated to world premieres and 21st-century music, starting it all off with Against the Grain and Ayre packs a unique kind of artistic wallop.
To have a style that’s instantly recognizable is about the best kind of branding. Golijov makes his mark with easy, earthy melodies, balancing the comforts of European tonality with the surprises of Latin American and Eastern styles – subtle nods to his Argentine and Romanian Jewish roots. Yet on this rare occasion of hearing multiple Golijov works in a single concert, you can also hear how style slides perilously into everything just sounding the same. If you listen to him long enough, you’ll hear the veer toward a Puccinian cheap emotional shot. A familiar harmonic shift here, an exotic trill there.
The exception in Golijov’s oeuvre: Ayre. You can tell it’s his work, the style is firmly rooted in the score. But there’s a level of inspiration that draws the composer out of his comfort zone. Or maybe it’s Khalil’s interpretation that leaves listeners wrung out from what feels both like a trip around the world and travelling through time. Khalil plays with her audience, delivering coy eyebrow raises in between luxurious lines padded with the vibrato of a true opera singer. She sings of ruthless princesses and hateful city walls, lurching around the stage in strange conversation with the jumble of instruments behind her; she trades a cannibalistic lullaby for some psychedelic accordion, then throws to the audience the shock of an exquisite melody laid over the sad poetry of persecuted people and desperate prayers.
The cycle is a musical melting pot, the product of influences from Latin America, Arabic singing and klezmer music. It’s a mirror to its message, which seemed on Saturday night to be that war and unrest are as universal as beauty and faith. Partway through, Khalil seemed to evolve from singer to character, a single person thrust into scenes of confusion and desperation; she is the ancient feminist, the universal activist, the woman in the midst of the din of popular culture trying to decide if all the noise is democracy or chaos.
I find it hard work to fully argue the arts can make a measurable difference in the world’s big problems. Both 21C and Against the Grain Theatre made the explicit case for Ayre’s being one of those saviour works, a piece of art to remind us that we are all one. I take the point, just not the self-applause. It’s certainly refreshing, though, that Ayre is wise enough not to offer any answers to the questions it lets loose. It does show us a response, though, which is distinct from an answer: Even in times of chaos and violence, it is difficult to destroy art.
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