Mohammed FAIROUZ (b.1985) Zabur (Psalms), Libretto by Najla Said (b.1974)
Part I [22:45]
Part II [32:57]
Dann Coakwell (tenor), Michael Kelly (baritone)
Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Eric Stark
World première recording
rec. 24 April, 2015 Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA NAXOS 8.559803 [55:43]
This disc is another in Naxos’ excellent and wide-ranging series of American Classics which, more than any other I have ever come across, has exposed the music-loving public to the wealth of music that has been created in the USA in its short history. As one American composer said, its music is not of the French or German tradition but has sought to establish its own. With its rich multi-cultural mix, it has done just that and the music on this disc is another important contribution towards maintaining and enriching that process.
Mohammed Fairouz is an Arab-American composer with family roots in the Emirates and who has carved himself an enviable position as a true path-finding composer of large-scale works which use the power of words to express deeply-held beliefs. To quote the impetus to commission the work on this disc by The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, he “...speaks not to our differences and what tears us apart, but to our shared values and unite us as humankind”. There is no worthier aim and it is to be hoped that this urgent message is widely disseminated, since the events unfolding in the world today make this more imperative than ever before.
Fairouz has a track record of tackling unusual subjects that further his aim to make a contribution to the above-mentioned statement. Two years ago I reviewed his symphony no.4 In the shadow of no towers, which told of the events of 9.11. Described as a “post millennial Schubert”, he is said to be “obsessed with text” and this work is his first oratorio, a genre which allows him to exploit that to the full. I read that one of his teachers was fellow-American composer Richard Danielpour, himself a descendant of a Persian Jewish family. It seems to me that Fairouz is ploughing the same furrow as Daniel Barenboim in his efforts to draw those people together through music who too often find themselves in conflict, a noble aim indeed which requires our wholehearted support. When the music is as good as this, moreover, that is an easy ask.
Zabur (Psalms) is an immensely powerful work that makes an impact from the opening moment. The libretto is by Najla Said, a Palestinian-American author, actor, playwright and activist. She is also the daughter of cultural historian Edward Said who in 1999, with his friend Daniel Barenboim, co-founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Israeli, Palestinian and Arab musicians. I only discovered this fact after I had already written above that I thought Fairouz was working along the same lines as Barenboim. I now find there is an even closer interconnection. The aim of this oratorio is to describe the situation today experienced by so many people in the Middle-East, whose lives are totally at the mercy of warring factions. By this means, Said and Fairouz show how long this terrible legacy has been visited upon these tragic peoples. The oratorio begins with the collective screams of a group of people; men, women and children who have sought refuge in a shelter. The screams are a premonition of the end. The story is of a young poet, writer and blogger Dawoûd (David) who is there with his companion Jibreel (Gabriel). All around them are the frightening sounds of destruction as their city is pounded by artillery fire. Since there is no electricity, Dawoûd writes by candlelight, trying to make some sense of what is going on while suffering frustration caused by his inability to get his writing out to the world. The premise is that culture has the power to rise above all the evil that men do and can exert a cleansing balm over the awful affects upon people caused by conflict and war. It asserts that the majority of people want peace and reject those who continue to resort to violence as a solution to problems. A war requiem in all but name, Zabur uses psalms in their original Arabic to act as a bridge from the past to the present to show how these situations have a timelessness, since some people never appear to learn lessons from history. I don’t know why, but the full libretto is not printed in the booklet and has to be accessed online from Naxos’ website. This makes it a little difficult to follow the text, even though the two soloists articulate the words beautifully clearly.
The words are very telling in their directness. The music matches that and confirms Fairouz’s ability to create works of considerable power, leaving the listener deeply impressed. There is an epic scale about the work and the music is appropriately grand. The overarching message that hope springs eternal and can and must gain the upper hand for the sake of Man’s survival resonates throughout. It is what the listener is left with as the work comes to a close. Zabur is a profoundly affecting oratorio for the modern era; it demands to be heard. The two soloists are fine singers indeed and Michael Kelly’s baritone voice really hits home. The work’s commissioning chorus gives powerful support along with the children’s choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra deliver the music expertly. The sound is well balanced and all the words are easy to hear which is so important in a work such as this. It is so refreshing to know that Mohammed Fairouz is held in such high esteem in the US, which has been recently shown itself to be a more divided country than people realised. The fact that people like him produce music and other works that are embraced as being an essential part of the fabric of the nation’s culture is a heartening message. This work is satisfying on several levels and will be enjoyed by all who hear it, I am sure.