At Rockport, ushering in a new chapter with Tchaikovsky, Golijov, and high spirits

Osvaldo Golijov
The Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s choice to invest boldly in its own future continues to bear fruit. In 2010, this stalwart regional festival put itself on the national map by opening a gem of a concert hall, intimate in scale and breathtaking in its design, with a wall of glass behind the stage overlooking the sea.

Now David Deveau, the artistic director who oversaw that period of dramatic growth, has handed over the reins to Barry Shiffman, whose first summer of programming seems to be quickening the festival’s pulse.

On paper, Shiffman’s first season of programs looks promising, with several new initiatives including a composer residency (this year given to Osvaldo Golijov), a Rockport Fellows program that will bring a core of rising young chamber musicians into the festival’s orbit, and a series of late-night “classical cabaret” programs. There is also a North American tint to the lineup, with leading Toronto-based musicians now sharing the calendar with musicians from Rockport summers past.

After intermission came “Ayre,” Golijov’s century-hopping, pan-Mediterranean song cycle that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2004 with soprano Dawn Upshaw. Since then, while “Ayre” remains one of Golijov’s signature works, live performances have been relatively rare given its elaborate instrumental requirements as well as the acrobatics it demands of a vocalist who must sing in Hebrew, Ladino, Arabic, Sardinian, and Spanish while leaping across a dizzying range of stylistic and emotional registers.

On Friday night, the score received a lavishly compelling performance, one that reunited several players from the original Deutsche Grammophon recording while adding a new theatrical gloss by director Joel Ivany. At its center, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil fearlessly embodied the parade of characters represented in these songs, spinning out tales of ancient battles with an urgency and charisma that made them feel like yesterday’s news. All told, it was an invigorating night for Rockport, the launch of a season that seems poised to hit the paradoxical sweet spot of remaining true to the festival’s roots while carrying it somewhere entirely new.

Read the full review.