Mohammed Fairouz’s Zabur, commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, wasn’t just about new notes strung together but bold statements — about war, suffering and hope. Fairouz, an Arab American, drew inspiration from current and ongoing events in the Middle East, and from the Psalms, which are included or acknowledged as important holy writings in all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity).
Zabur, a war requiem, is set in a shelter, where Daoud (or David, as you might know him from the Old Testament) sings of what is happening outside, in the war zone of Syria, with his friend Jibreel (Gabriel). The first notes were of the entire chorus singing “Ah!” which was like a heartwrenching plea for help, the kind that can only come from the most gruesome of horrors. That, along with the cacophony of the orchestra was as intense an opening as I’ve ever heard. Daoud then sung of the atrocities happening outside, (libretto by Najla Said and Fairouz). Baritone Michael Kelly poured himself into the work as if he’d seen some of the horrors in person; to hear such emotive singing was uplifting, even though the subject matter was uncomfortable and troubling. The Indianapolis Children’s Choir singing the part of the children in the shelter was quite haunting, as they sung of infants crying.
Musically speaking, Fairouz at times reminded me of Philip Glass’ minimalism, with oscillating minor thirds and arpeggios scattered throughout the work, which created a feeling of consistency, albeit an uncomfortable consistency given the subject matter. In Part 2 of the work, Jibreel sings with Daoud, and is an encouraging, hopeful voice during all that is going on. Tenor Dann Coakwell’s bright, clear voice was ideal for the part. The work ends with Psalm 102 (“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee”), with a reiteration of the initial “Ah!” This work, more than heard, was deeply felt. To have such a moving piece be commissioned and premiered by group here in Indianapolis is an encouragement to all of us who want to see its arts scene continue to stretch and grow.
The second half of the evening was Faure’s Requiem, probably one of the best loved requiems ever written. The performance had a graceful, luminous quality, coupled with a feeling of respect befitting a requiem. Baritone Kelly was well suited to this part, particularly as he sang the Libera Me, praying to be delivered from a forever death.
The ISC and ISO collaborate often, and this evening was a solid combination of the two groups. The concert was, in many respects, a best of the best, not just in terms of the skilled ensembles, but because of the music — and the messages of hope contained within.