Saturday, April 25, 2015

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir premieres an Arab-American composer's plea for peace

Mohammed Fairouz, composer
Mohammed Fairouz is a prolific, widely admired composer who seems determinedly engaged with the world outside music — particularly the world of his heritage, the Middle East. He has used the Psalms common in the wider religious heritage of the Abrahamic religions as a basis for an oratorio, "Zabur," which was premiered Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presentation, conducted by its artistic director, Eric Stark,  also included the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. With elaborate tilling of the ground for a new commissioning project (detailed in a short video shown before the concert), the ISC connected with the 29-year-old Arab-American. His interest in outreach plus a remarkable resume clearly led to the expectation that the new work would have an aura of community-building wrapped up in an artistically comprehensive package.

Truth be told, "Zabur"'s chief quality is its intense sincerity. The layout of the piece, whose title is Arabic for "psalms," spans the region's history and religious expression, focusing on appeals to the Divine Ruler for relief from the conflicts of secular rulers; hence the initial use of Psalm 2, familiar to oratorio-lovers from its setting in Handel's "Messiah."

Two psalm settings in Arabic (Psalm 102 is the other) frame dialogue between a Syrian blogger, Daoud, and his companion, Jibreel. Their names are Arabic versions of the monumental figures they represent: David, ancient king of a united Israel, to whom the Book of Psalms is traditionally ascribed; and the Archangel Gabriel, God's busiest and most exalted messenger.

Daoud and Jibreel are trying to communicate to the outside world from a bomb shelter in Syria, where families including small children are confined under life-threatening conditions. Their project is to take their acknowledgment of God's supremacy as a vehicle for turning suffering into art; mere social-media journalism is insufficient.

That's where these two figures join up with Fairouz's mission as a composer. A cynic might wonder if it's a little vain for a composer to insert his work into this appeal for divine mercy. When Daoud sings, "Suddenly I feel as though I may be able to raise my voice louder and more fully, and actually make the entire world hear my voice," has the composer stepped in as a ventriloquist?

"Zabur" brings to the fore powerfully the human need to cry out from the depths, to borrow language from Psalm 130.  That expression is particularly moving at the point when the shelter's children lift their voices in a series of questions, asking for Daoud's help in conveying their distress. Fairouz seems to have an intuitive feeling for the human voice, which is evident in the solo voices — baritone Michael Kelly (Daoud) and tenor Dann Coakwell (Jibreel) — as well as the choral writing.

Fairouz's style rests on certain aspects of minimalism, but he inflects this with sudden departures from repetitive patterns as well as decorative gestures that tweak those repetitions. "Zabur" is often comforting, despite the portrayal of conflict and privation: The massed singers' anguished "Ah!," plus instrumental clashing, opens the work and recurs before the second psalm setting, which concludes "Zabur." Arabic being completely unknown to me — and since the original is set in that language's  alphabet in the program booklet — it was hard to judge just what Fairouz was making of the text when; a phonetic version in our alphabet placed next to the translation would have helped.

I caught this for sure in the music: a timeless feeling accompanying the text's praise of the eternity of God was evident as the piece approached its conclusion. Its floating choral unisons recalled two works the program notes specifically acknowledge: Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms." I left more persuaded by the depth of Fairouz's feeling for the  significance of what he addresses in the new oratorio than by the music itself.

No such problem accompanied my experience  of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem after intermission. In his  preface to "Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg straightaway adopts the phrase "a religion-loving atheist" to describe himself. I would own up to being "a religion-wary agnostic." Like Steinberg, however, I can freely admit often being transported by sacred masterpieces, and Fauré's is certainly one of those. Belief is provisional, in my case, but feels genuine while I'm hearing a fine performance of it.

Apart from a brief trumpet-organ kerfuffle in the "Introitus: Kyrie," this was a magical rendition. There was sensitive orchestral playing; the lower strings were having a good night. The choir displayed its most radiant tone and purest diction, the baritone soloist (Kelly again) dispatched "Hostias" and "Libera me" with the non-operatic intimacy the composer wanted, and the soprano solo ("Pie Jesu") was acceptably handled by eight ICC members.

The concert came full circle with the finale "In Paradisum" and its reference to the hoped-for angelic  guidance of the departed souls into the holy city of Jerusalem, whose status was conferred long ago by the legendary King David, Farouz's Daoud. Even more worth noting, in light of my self-description above, is the effect "In Paradisum" had on me. So I want to end this post with the lovely, and most revealing, final paragraph of Steinberg's essay on Fauré's Requiem. I can never read this paragraph without getting chills:

"Once I was giving a preconcert talk on the Fauré Requiem in the beautiful Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, and as I came to the end, I heard myself say something I had not planned to say, and not remotely thought about. I found myself remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. A priest walked with him to the place of execution, and Bonhoeffer parted from his companion with the words: 'In five minutes, Father, I shall know more than you.' And I said that this music tells me Gabriel Fauré already knew."

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