Modern style, ancient melodies in vocal concert at Stanford

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? If you’re talking about the music of Sephardic Jews, the best way is via composer Osvaldo Golijov and celebrated soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Premiered last year at New York’s celebrated venue, Golijov’s song cycle “Ayre” (“air” or “melody” in medieval Spanish) will have its first West Coast performance Sunday, Oct. 23 at Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium. Upshaw, to whom the composer dedicated the piece, will once again do the honors.

“Ayre” consists of a series of folk melodies, most of them drawn from multiple religious and musical traditions from medieval Spain: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. It is scored for an eclectic ensemble that includes flute, guitar, cello, accordion, harp, double bass and even laptop computer (for vocal doubling and other effects). Golijov himself has said he was influenced by everything from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” to Miles Davis’ compositions while writing the piece.

Classical music fans will recognize echoes of song cycles by Luciano Berio and Joseph Canteloube. But those same fans will be the first to concede Golijov is in a class by himself.

One of the most revered of contemporary composers, Golijov grew up in Argentina and Israel, the son of Eastern European Jewish parents. He benefited from exposure to several musical traditions so with “Ayre” he found himself on familiar ground.

The piece was commissioned to open the 2004 season at Zankel Hall, a smaller theater connected with Carnegie. Golijov wrote it in less than a month, saying later: “This is the piece that is closest to who I am. Dawn was amazing. She only got the music at the last minute before she had to record it.”

Upshaw and the composer had collaborated several times before. She describes the MacArthur “genius” award winner as “a beautiful person, filled with light and joy, and very effervescent.”

“Ayre” includes songs in Hebrew, Ladino, Arabic, Spanish and Sardinian. Though known for her linguistic skills, Upshaw had to ask for some help with “Ayre.”

“I had never sung in Arabic before,” she says. “I coached that with someone. Osvaldo was a lot of help with the Ladino.”

Moreover, Golijov asked Upshaw to draw on the folk singing styles of the various regions, including adapting a few quirky vocal tricks. In the more frenetic sections, Upshaw fans will barely recognize the singer, known for her stately almost languid tone. But the versatile Upshaw says she was up to the task, being an old folkie herself.

“I’ve been interested in folk music ever since I was born,” says the Chicago native. “That’s what I grew up with in my home. My parents played a lot of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. The initial idea [of ‘Ayre’] seemed so right for Osvaldo. His different cultural backgrounds — Jewish, Argentine, Israeli — shaped his own music making in such a strong way.”

Golijov has explored his Jewish roots before; his “Yiddishbuk” string quartet is performed frequently. Upshaw, though not Jewish, has sung other Jewish-themed works, including some by Golijov. But she has resisted any temptations to inject false Yiddishizing in “Ayre.”

“Osvaldo talks about this,” she says. “He is more concerned with what we all have in common than with the differences. This piece brings that out.”

Being a new work in a modern idiom, “Ayre” could have been met with some audience resistance. But not so, says Upshaw. So far, she’s performed it in New York, Boston and at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. Each time the crowd went wild.

“My hope,” she says, “is to get to the truth of the style, to understand the means of expression. Though it may seem very otherworldly, [‘Ayre’] is actually not so far away from what we all know.”

Dawn Upshaw appears in concert performing works by Golijov and Berio at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23 in Memorial Auditorium located at Stanford University, 551 Serra Mall, Palo Alto. Tickets: $30-$80. Information: (650) 725-2787 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.