As we confront the division, scorn and malice in the world these days, it is vital to be reminded that humanity has the ability to unite and share experiences, despite all the barriers that society, history, custom and culture throw between us.
Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre, brilliantly performed by Miriam Khalil and an ensemble of 11 musicians, currently being presented at Toronto's Ismaili Centre by Against the Grain Theatre, is a perfect and tremendously satisfying example of just that cultural transcendence, the antidote to the sad burden of reality that drums at us from our TVs, smartphones and newspapers every hour.
Ayre is an unlikely candidate for that honour. It's made up of texts that are essentially 600 and 700 years old, centred in Andalusia, that part of Spain that was simultaneously home to Islamic, Christian and Sephardic musical and literary traditions. Out of this cultural melange of difference and opposition that might have torn itself apart, Golijov has instead fashioned a careening, vital, emotional, wild concoction that demonstrates one essential fact: that all human emotions (and Ayre has them all) – love, hate, conflict, devotion, passion, heartbreak, lamentation – are shared and shareable, and that texts in Arabic and Hebrew and music from Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions can be woven together into a crazy quilt of unity, ecstatic in its total completeness and fullness.
And soprano Khalil, who sings, intones, wails, coos and caresses the texts in Ayre, is a mesmerizing, gorgeous presence in the piece. Khalil's voice is operatically trained, but emanates from a Christian Arab soul, so all the various elements of Ayre's wild range find a home somewhere in her emotional and cultural makeup. Her lullabies are heartbreaking in the work, her violent outbursts frightening, her recitation of Arab texts engaging, her range of emotional compass overwhelming. And the colours in her voice find perfect counterparts in the 11 instruments that accompany her, from a klezmer-sounding clarinet, to a powerful accordion, French horn, string section, even a laptop playing electronic sounds. Khalil matched them all in both timbre and emotional content. The discreet, but effective staging of the work that director Joel Ivany and lighting designer Jason Hand created for her only added to the effectiveness of the presentation.
The 50-minute Ayre was preceded in various spots within the beautiful Ismaili Centre by a first half made up of three other Golijov compositions, for strings and voice accompanied by strings. His Yiddishbbuk is a deep lament and violent confrontation with the spirit of the Psalms, drawing on his Romanian Jewish ancestry. Lua Descolorida is a simple, yet lovely setting of a 19th-century Spanish poem, a testament to Golijov's birthplace, Argentina. And Tenebrae is an extended reflection on the medieval idea of Jerusalem, the gleaming home to three different cultures. The members of the Glenn Gould Ensemble played all three with verve, passion and commitment. Sopranos Adanya Dunn and Ellen McAteer both inhabited the sweet, passionate world of Golijov's writing for voice with real conviction.
Golijov, one of the great composers of our time, is also a man in a sort of perpetual exile – a stand in for all of us living in a world of changing values, expectations and cultural landscapes. He is a Romanian Jew in his cultural roots, but born in Argentina, who left his birthplace to live in Israel, only to leave and take up residence in Boston. He is a world cultural traveller who has used his own lack of rootedness to inhabit many cultures simultaneously, and show the rest of us how that can be accomplished with style, certainty and success.
As the slight, modest composer stood on the Ismaili Centre stage on Thursday night after the performance, directing the applause to everyone but himself, it seemed the antidote to the poison that pollutes our global cultural and political health – a person of imagination, deep feeling, and artistic excellence, devoted to the complex working out of the problems that otherwise threaten us all.