Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Another listen: "Zabur" is now out on CD and about to be performed in Carnegie Hall

The oratorio composer has an advantage over those working in other genres — including himself when he is not
Eric Stark will conduct "Zabur" in Carnegie Hall, as he did here.
all about oratorio-writing. He can create characters in action who are mainly defined by his music, with hardly any mediation by "staging."A point of view toward his material emerges more naturally as the product of his engagement with the text. The oratorio is a public musical genre loaded with the creator's private concerns.

The sacred oratorio addressed the faithful through musical settings of vivid, often familiar, stories and venerated testimony. Maintaining that legacy in the 21st century, the Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz fashioned "Zabur" out of a personal need to express the sorrow of today's Middle East conflict in terms that seek to bridge the three Abrahamic religions, and by implication reach out to all of humanity in a plea for peace, rooted in biblical psalms.

The work was premiered by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which commissioned it, in the spring of 2015. You can read my review of the first performance here. On Sunday, the choir along with Bel Canto and Cantante Angeli of the Indianapolis Children's Choir, supported by one of two original soloists plus a NewYork instrumental ensemble, will give "Zabur" its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall.

This seems the right time to revisit the composition, with the impending public release of the Naxos recording of the original performance, recorded at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Besides the participating choirs, the premiere featured the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with tenor Dann Coakwell and baritone Michael Kelly as soloists. The combined forces were conducted by ISC music director Eric Stark, who will be on the podium Sunday as well. Stark's commitment to the score shines through, and he draws sterling work from the choir he regularly helms as well as from the superbly trained ICC. The ISO handles its assignment conscientiously, and the tenor and bass soloists convey the urgency and rapport of the two main characters.

"Zabur" is Arabic for "psalms," two of which (2 and 102) are here set in Arabic in contrast to the English text (by Najla Said). The latter consists largely of dialogue between characters called Dahwoud and Jibreel. The place is a shelter in a besieged Middle Eastern city. Dawoud is an Arabic version of the name David, the putative author of the Bible's book of Psalms. In "Zabur" he struggles with writer's block in a situation in which his vulnerability is crushing. Jibreel, a companion with angelic significance (his name means Gabriel) persuades him to open up his blocked expression by reaching out to others also confined in the shelter, particularly the children.

The immense contribution of Psalms to the poetic and spiritual heritage of the West can hardly be overestimated.
In "The Shadow of a Great Rock," the literary critic Harold Bloom cites the scholar Herbert Marks in identifying two features of Psalms worth recalling in assessing "Zabur." One is that these lyrical poems are totally without irony:  no image is put in service of a voice that ever means something other than what it says. The other is that the psalms are nearly unique in the degree to which the speaker's vulnerability is exposed.

This is the basis of Fairouz's work. But I can't quite get past the difficulty that what emerges with Jibreel's help is, effectively, this composition itself. Dawoud's vulnerability is the vulnerability of the blocked creative artist. That gives "Zabur" a self-congratulatory feel that's more than a little disturbing. The rapport with the text that inspires the composer is too close for comfort, despite the universal appeal of the shelter dwellers' plight. Is this Fairouz's "Song of Myself"?


Mohammed Fairouz makes a grand statement.
Fairouz puts such self-regard at the service of a scenario that involves the fatal dashing of the sheltered inhabitants' hopes; the shelter is destroyed. But the libretto carries a miracle: These victims rise in the lofty final scene, an expansive setting of Psalm 102. In asserting the eternal majesty of God in contrast to human vulnerability, the psalm rests on a faith that not even the obliteration of the faithful can destroy. That supports what is meant by the psalms being "untouched by irony," in Marks' phrase.

Fairouz's music reaches toward a final synthesis here. The launch of Psalm 102 is cast in orchestral terms reminiscent of the start of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten." A feature of much of Glass' music is the trampoline effect of a repeated ornamental figure bouncing off a plain bass note or chord sounded at regular intervals. In "Aknaten," the figure is ascending, befitting the opera's celebration of the sun; in "Zabur," the figure, though placed above the trombone-flavored ostinato, drifts downward, which is apt for the cataclysm about to occur.

Philip Glass
I was impressed by Fairouz's virtuosity with orchestral color. And appropriately, there is no showing off about this, given the pallor and even gloom of the setting. He keeps his music centered on the voices and the human situation of confinement and suffering. He writes music on which the  text sits well and with variety. The most moving of his inspirations is the chorus for children as they suggest what wishes of theirs they would like to have addressed in Dahwoud's work. Repetitive figures keep underlining the minimalist heritage, but the composer feels free to break out of such patterns frequently.

Besides his debt to minimalism, Fairouz owes much to the comfortably animated vocal styles of Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. Yet another sticking point for me is the breakthrough moment when Dahwoud lets Jabreel read the passage in his notebook starting "In the beginning you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands." The passage, from Psalm 102, is set to a tune that, in its melodic contour and pattern of syncopation, resembles calypso, of all things. That high-spirited Caribbean music seems wrong for what Fairouz intends at this point. In subsequent uses, the calypso features of the tune are flattened out and the rhythmic profile eased, fortunately, as the music becomes otherworldly.

Bernstein looking Beethovenish.
Bloom says of the Psalms: "They pray for a God both more effectual and compassionate than reality can bestow." That assessment probably seems harsh to the faithful, but it rings true. It's confirmed by the way "Zabur" opens, with a cacophony of choral anxiety — a foreshadowing of the shelter's destruction near the end. Reality bestows neither an effectual nor a compassionate God in this piece, but there remains invocation of a presiding deity, an eternal being worthy of worship and wonder. But Fairouz wants to emphasize the human connections forged under such extreme conditions — and the transcendent possibilities of those connections.


A few instances of composers  going outside their normal idiom to emphasize disorder and upheaval blazed trails for the anguished opening of "Zabur." Everyone reading this is familiar with the Schreckensfanfare as the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony gets under way — the loud dissonance heralding the eventual arrival of a positive message that dismisses the negativity of the opening. Much later, in Bernstein's "Mass," the initial outburst of 12-tone music (amplified by speakers around the hall when I attended the premiere in 1971) foreshadows the upheaval the Celebrant will face. "Sing God a simple song," he croons, interrupting the human katzenjammer. He will later suffer for this placid message, smashing the Host in despair over the people's wrangling while celebrating Eucharist. Like Fairouz, Bernstein in "Mass" congratulates himself on his ability to suffer, yet rise above the battle to effect a final reconciliation through his alter ego, the Celebrant.

Music deliberately appalling at the start of "Zabur" is one indication of Fairouz's effective way of grabbing an audience's attention and bending it toward his message. I just wish the message didn't seem to amount to this: The saving grace of Middle East destruction, as well as of the meaning of psalms in the modern world, must be the emergence of such a work as "Zabur." The piece (plus the effort it took to realize it) is worth celebrating, but probably not at the level on which it seems to place itself.