FAIROUZ: Zabur / Dann Coakwell, tenor; Michael Kelly, baritone; Indianapolis Children’s Choir; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Eric Stark, conductor / Naxos 8.559803 (text included)
How on earth do you become a major composer, and one who is wholly original in their musical thinking, by age 20? Mozart and Mendelssohn pulled it off, but that was a long time ago. Beethoven at 20 wasn’t even a blip on the classical scene; Schubert was still cutting his musical eye-teeth at that age; Berlioz, Verdi, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel were still struggling to find their voices. Schoenberg was still aping Mahler at 20; Stravinsky was studying with Rimsky-Korsakov. But Mohammed Fairouz didn’t just become a major composer at that age; he was already on the scene three years earlier, at age 17. I’m still baffled by it, myself, and can only chalk it up to an innate ability to absorb and process musical information the way Albert Einstein was able to absorb and process mathematical and scientific data at an early age. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t, and Mohammed Fairouz clearly has it.
Now aged 30, Fairouz continues to impress with remarkable compositions. Zabur, composed last year, is his first oratorio. Fairouz describes it as “a sort of war requiem.” The premise is that Dawoüd (David) and his friend Jibreel (Gabriel) are caught in a Middle Eastern war zone. With parts of the city on generator power as bombs and guns continually go off around them, Dawoüd has no computer access but is forced to write poetry and his journal the old-fashioned way, via pen and paper. He is only able to share these written thoughts with the people who are in the shelter with him. As Fairouz says in his introductory notes, “The oratorio begins with a flash forward of the terrible outcry in the last moments of the people in the shelter as they meet a violent fate. But by the time that this premonition returns as the actual moment of destruction in Part II, they’ve been working and creating for some time so that when the bombs finally come and destroy the shelter, all the pages of their collective labor are left and a full final hymn has been created. Zabur ends with them all ‘rising up’ to sing their last song together and Dawoūd’s eternal, resonating final lines. These lines allow the people to move beyond their confused, disastrous present and touch something timeless and eternal.”
Fairouz’ music, as those who know it are familiar, is an unusual combination of Eastern sounds—not only in the melodic structure, but also in the harmonic base—with Western forms. And he doesn’t so much vacillate between them as he constantly keeps them inextricably bound together. Zabur begins violently, with the horrified yelling of citizens who have lost electricity and are sitting in the dark, fearing an attack that can end their lives (“Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?”), before melting into an exquisitely beautiful, lyrical section (“There is no power here”) sung by Dawoüd. Michael Kelly, as Dawoüd, has a lovely voice but not entirely clear English pronunciation (I could make out some words but not all), thus it is good that the text is provided in the booklet. In the third section, “There is an occasional crackle far, far away,” Fairouz doubles the tempo and provides a coruscating melodic line in which the chorus interjects, eventually sustaining a hummed A while Coakwell continues singing. Fairouz’ ability to create melodies that are exquisitely lovely, as in Dawoüd’s aria here, yet are not sugary or treacly, is simply incredible. A solo cello accompanies the latter part of his monologue, which takes on a more strophic, less melodic quality. I should also point out that Fairouz’ abilities as a composer also extend to his talent for scoring an orchestra and writing for chorus. His use of color in his music is extraordinary; so too his clever use of alternating rhythms to enhance the emotional impact of the music. I also found it interesting that the Psalms used in the tet are sung in Arabic, yet also set to music that is primarily Western in structure with Eastern coloring. Great credit must go to conductor Eric Stark, who brings all of this out of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which was brought up to world-class level by John Nelson many moons ago (1976-1987).
The second part of this oratorio opens with just Dawoüd, sitting and writing in the dark as Jibreel enters and tells him to rest. He refuses: “I wanted to tell the world…in an article, I thought. Or a book. But I can only write music now…” Tenor Dann Coakwell also has a lovely voice, and clearer diction than Kelly. There is almost an operatic quality in the duet that follows (“I tried to get the children…”), set to music with a decidedly minimalist feel to the rhythm, but not written as minimalism. I should add Fairouz’ ability to write for solo voices to his long list of skills. In the second part of this duet (“We should all, especially the children”), Fairouz introduces triplets played by flutes and clarinets behind the solo singing, which adds to the impact of the words. I was constantly surprised and delighted by his ability to keep morphing and changing the music, melodically and rhythmically, while retaining a musical flow in which the disparate elements coalesce into a swirling whole. I even hear elements of Verismo opera techniques in his music, re-imagined and dovetailed into his own unique musical language.
Eventually, when the bombs hit the shelter, “all the pages are left and a full final hymn has been created.” Here we return to the angst and horror of the opening section, yet the music eventually works its way towards reconciliation and peace. Zabur is a wonderful piece, well worth hearing and experiencing, and this performance is simply wonderful in every respect.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley