> Choral and Song
Symphony No. 3, Poems and Prayers
Cooke; Kravitz; Krakauer (clarinet); UCLA Chorale, University Chorus, and Philharmonia, Stulberg. Texts and translations. Sono Luminus DSL-92177
It is startling, to say the least, to hear a large choral symphonic work by an Arab-American composer begin with an urgent, galvanizing setting of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The piece in question is Mohammed Fairouz’s grandly ambitious Symphony No. 3, subtitled Poems and Prayers. By alternating between settings of Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew poetry, Fairouz’s work pleads for peace between two perennially warring peoples — Palestinians and Israelis — by bearing musical and poetic witness to their horrifying mutual suffering and, consequently, making plain what unites them as human beings, despite their deep and obvious differences. The last couplet of the Kaddish, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” recurs between the symphony’s four larger movements as a rondo-like refrain with different musical settings, returning at the very end in close to its original form. Throughout the work there are clear elements of both Jewish and Arabic musical traditions, as well as evocations — both overt and implicit — of illustrious Western works like Beethoven’s Ninth, Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, and John Adams’s Nixon in China. Fairouz’s quest is clearly for something universal, and he achieves exactly that by showing that these diverse strands can be woven into a coherent, original, and quite moving musical tapestry.
The especially distinctive second movement (“Lullaby”), for clarinet and soprano with delicate orchestral accompaniment, was originally composed in 2008 upon the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, from whose State of Siege the text is drawn. The wailing, sinuous melodic lines are very self-consciously Middle Eastern, with clarinet and voice shadowing each other in unison, thirds, and octaves. The text sounds like a love poem, but we learn in a wrenching twist at the end that it’s a woman speaking to her son at his funeral. Mezzo Sasha Cooke shows mournful, idiomatic brilliance interacting with virtuoso clarinetist David Krakauer in this movement. (Krakauer also brings his astonishing klezmer stylings to bear in Tahrir, or “Freedom,” the riotous, Arabic-flavored work for clarinet and orchestra that opens the disc.) The third movement, “Night Fantasy,” draws from a work written by Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan just after the 1967 Six-Day War, which marked the beginning of the Israeli occupation. Here, Cooke partners with UCLA violinist Nicole Sauder to weave a quasi-Mahlerian spell of lamentation that cuts deeply.
The sprawling fourth movement sets Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai’s “Memorial Day for the War Dead.” Fairouz covers a great deal of ground here: we encounter yearning, resonant melodies, both Hebraic and otherwise, as well as violent eruptions featuring scattered choral chanting and frenzied orchestral scampering; military march music; and an obsessively repeating instrumental figure that takes us inside the tortured brain of a man who has lost his son and wanders the street “like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.” There’s also a gigantic, nearly atonal vocal fugue, with a long, complex subject that creepily dies away each time at the very end upon reaching the word “death.” Fairouz, in addition to his obviously deeply felt desire for Middle East peace, brings a considerable amount of knowledge and skill to bear; one can also note that while his modernist credentials are frequently in evidence, he also occasionally reveals a soft spot for a good old-fashioned, easily graspable melody.
Baritone David Kravitz is an extroverted and impassioned presence for extended passages, quite capably embodying the frightfully high stakes of the proceedings. In one of the “Oseh shalom” passages, tenor James Callon sings fervently but with a certain tranquility that seems to offer the possibility of peace. Much of the heavy lifting, however, is done by university-level forces: the UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale, and University Chorus. They have clearly risen to the protean demands placed on them, performing with sturdy musicianship and considerable emotive power. Conductor Neal Stulberg has an impressively sure grasp of this challenging and multi-layered work, imposing discipline where it’s needed, and unleashing chaos where it’s demanded.
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