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CD Button Coakwell, Kelly; Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Symphonic Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Stark. Texts and translations. Naxos 8.559803

Recordings Zabur Cover 217
Critics Choice Button 1015

ZABUR, THE TITLE ofMohammed Fairouz’s new oratorio for tenor, baritone, children’s choir, mixed chorus and orchestra, is the Arabic word for the Psalms. Described by Fairouz as a war requiem, the piece was a commission from the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir; Fairouz wrote it as a response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which, the composer has said, “is going to be the great shame of our generation for the rest of history.” 

The vivid and poignant libretto, by Najla Said, tells the story of a poet trapped in a shelter during wartime. Deprived of the usual ways of transmitting his work to the world, he shares his words and music with his fellow prisoners, who join with him in creating a collaborative work to express their plight. The children, reluctant at first, are persuaded to participate. When the shelter is attacked, the piece they have created lives on in glory. Daewood, the poet, and Jibreel, his companion and muse, are counterparts of the Biblical David and Jonathan, and the sublime hymn of peace, which we hear at the end, takes its text from Psalm 102. (All the Psalms are sung in Arabic.) 

This is one of Fairouz’s most moving, exciting, penetrating and enveloping works to date. As always, his broad array of international influences gives him a musical palette that can transcend boundaries of genre and nationality to express deep and universal yearnings. One hears echoes of Mahler, Britten, Bernstein and Glass, as well as cantorial melodies in Middle Eastern modes. Mostly, however, the piece gives us what at this point can be called pure Fairouz—a musical language that can summon great atrocities but spills over with generous humanity. There’s even a hummable tune, to the verse “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth.” 

As Daewood, the fervently expressive baritone Michael Kelly brings us into the shelter, aghast at the horrors he has witnessed outside and unsure if he should write about them. Later, when he finds his voice through music, he bursts with exuberant artistic inspiration. The magnificent setting of Psalm 2 that follows this breakthrough and ends Part I is as galvanizing as Psalm 102 is tranquil and soothing. Tenor Dann Coakwell, as Jibreel, is a comforting contrast when he makes his entrance in Part II, and he soars along with Kelly once Jibreel catches his creativity.

The piece begins with a wailing chorus and thundering, timpani-driven orchestra. When this music returns near the end, we realize it’s the sound of the shelter’s destruction. The impact is brutal, but it’s swept away by the defiant and fortissimo A-naturals at the beginning of the choral finale. 

Eric Stark conducts the massed forces of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Symphonic Choir and Symphony Orchestra. All are exemplary; the piece is extraordinary. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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