MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Orpheus Ascending: Mohammed Fairouz’s New CD

follow-poet

Mohammed Fairouz’s Follow, Poet is among the most inspiring CDs I’ve encountered in quite a while. For one thing, it documents two recent works by a composer who brings to the new-music scene not just a fresh voice but a powerful intellect and — most significantly — an unclouded vision of art’s potential for our jaded age. A vision that is ambitious without being naive.

Fairouz, still just south of 30, has already channeled his imagination into an astonishing gamut of genres, from intimate chamber works to concertos and major-scale symphonies (four to date!), choral pieces, and opera and other theater works. And with Follow, Poet, he is the youngest composer in the history of Deutsche Grammophon to have an entire album devoted to his works.

Such ample gifts could easily run aground with compromised or even downright hackwork production just to fulfill the commissions that seem to be piling up from all sides. (Alas, not an uncommon phenomenon.) But start listening to the song cycle Audenesque, one of the gems featured on Follow, Poet, and you find yourself in the hands of an artist who crafts the musical equivalent of a page-turner: the first song sets the stage for W.H. Auden’s masterful elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats with a gripping blend of musical images, a mix of restless churning and numb melancholy.

In place of mere accompaniment or wallpaper “illustration” of Auden’s own images, Fairouz builds a sound world that vividly engages with the elegy’s aesthetic agenda, which is organized into three stages as three separate but interlinked songs. First is the despairing indifference of the “real world” in response to the artist’s death, followed by a reflection on the actual difference poetry can make. The elegy culminates in the moving breakthrough of renewal in the third song, with its promise of “the healing fountain.”

Fairouz’s music beautifully amplifies the oracular-in-the-ordinary tone characteristic of Auden. An additional layer enriches the cycle by bridging Auden’s elegy with the present era as Fairouz appends a fourth song, his setting of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Audensque.

Auden paid homage to Yeats as the exemplary poet, and Heaney’s poem feelingly, and with humor, eulogizes fellow poet Joseph Brodsky (who died in 1996 — on the same date on which Yeats had died). The music forges still another link in this chain of connection, becoming the composer’s elegy for Heaney (the poet had befriended Fairouz near the end of his life).

In a short booklet essay, the conductor/musicologist Leon Botstein provides an eloquent appraisal of Fairouz’s musical pedigree and approach. You can hear the sensibility he shares with Samuel Barber (the unforced lyricism, with its elegiac undertow), Kurt Weill (the accessibility that nevertheless forces you to listen actively, without the crutch of easy sentiment), and Gustav Mahler (the narrative punch, along with the pointed details of Fairouz’s chamber orchestration); an arresting harmonic pattern at the climax of the Auden poem meanwhile casts its Philip Glass-like spell. Yet the perspective Fairouz brings to his influences is strongly individual, never sounding eclectic.

The other musical work is Sadat, a chamber ballet being released here ahead of its stage premiere (to be given in late May 2015 by the Mimesis Ensemble at Carnegie Hall). Cast in five brief but representative scenes, Sadat distills a portrait of the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

Like Audenesque, the wordless ballet score manifests the theatrical and narrative instincts that figure so prominently in Fairouz’s compositions. Whether the scene is of public mourning or an intimate encounter between the young army officer and his fiancée, a minimum of musical gestures is needed to establish the atmosphere.

Sadat‘s chamber orchestration centers around a characterful array of tuned and untuned percussion (including highly colorful writing for xylophone). Fairouz’s use of these instruments alludes more directly to the Middle Eastern sound world that contributes important elements to the Arab-American composer’s palette — he even calls for the sound of a shofar — though similar gestures are subtly present in his scoring of Audenesque as well.

The performances are sympathetic, alluring, dramatically crisp. Evan Rogister leads the Ensemble LPR, a group of 14 musicians associated with New York’s admired “alternative” performance venue, Le Poisson Rouge. With its warmth, variety of colors, and flexibility, Kate Lindsey’s mezzo is ideally suited to Fairouz’s vocal writing. His lines trace their own musical sense while remaining alert to the sounds and rhythmic life of the words.

Follow, Poet is also the inaugural release in an innovative series — Return to Language — that Elizabeth Sobol, the president of Universal Music Classics, has launched to explore the synergy between music and words.

To that end, the album includes separate tracks of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon reciting the poems set to music by Fairouz, along with a couple of brief excerpts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy extolling the power of poetry.

“I believe in cultivating a respect and love for depth of language and reflection and expression, even in the age of Twitter and YouTube, when some of that seems in danger of being eroded,” says Sobol. “And it has always been the interrelatedness of literature and music that has touched me most deeply in art — the exponential power of storytelling when you join words and music.”

It’s a highly laudable effort that deserves to have a widespread audience — and the choice of music by Mohammed Fairouz to kick it off shows that UMC is on the right track.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD reviews, Mohammed Fairouz, new music, poetry, programming, review

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