Mohammed Fairouz: Zabur a modern masterwork

In my opinion, “Zabur” is the Britten “War Requiem” for our time. Zabur is an oratorio about war. But it doesn’t focus on the politics of conflict, but rather the impact to the innocents caught in the crossfire. Its protagonist is Dawoūd (David), a poet and blogger in a clearly Middle Eastern setting.

But the work is universal in its expression. Fairouz begins the oratorio with an inarticulate wail of terror from the assembled choirs. They represent the men, women, and children huddled with Dawoūd, trying to survive an artillery barrage. Who’s shelling their city is never made clear because it doesn’t matter. Whether friend or foe, the explosions still kill and maim.

Najla Saïd’s libretto tells how people live as best they can in the midst of constant warfare and the ever-present threat of sudden death. But this isn’t an oratorio of despair. Rather, as the music unfolds, we hear the hero Dawoūd express hope and even wonder. Amidst the tragedy, he discovers beauty and grace.

Gramophone called Fairouz “a post-millennial Schubert,” and with good reason. His melodies spin out effortlessly, illuminating the text and teasing out the underlying emotions in the words. Fairouz writes in what I might call a post-tonal style. Sparingly used Middle Eastern modes give the work a sense of place, but there are passages that would not be out of place in Bernstein’s “Mass,” or Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten.” And yet the voice is always uniquely that of Fairouz.

“Zabur” was commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, performing here with the premiering forces — the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Indianapolis Children’s Choir. The ensembles are in fine form, playing and singing with conviction and power. Michael Kelly clear, rich baritone gives Dawoūd’s role the emotive power it needs. Tenor Dann Coakwell sang with equal expressiveness.

For those who want classical music be an expression of its time, “Zabur” is a work for them. And for those who prefer classical music that is timeless and universal in its expression, “Zabur” is the work for them, too. This is not pretty background music. Zabur is a work of great emotional power — and one that needs to be heard.

Mohammed Fairouz: Zabur
Dann Cockwell, tenor; Michael Kelly, baritone
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir; Indianapolis Children’s Choir; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eric Stark, conductor
Naxos 8.559803

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