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Jewish Journal

Magical music of the Middle East

by Rick Schultz

November 22, 2013 | 4:13 pm

Mohammed Fairouz. Photo by Samantha West

Mohammed Fairouz. Photo by Samantha West

Almost two years ago, while watching a YouTube video of Mohammed Fairouz’s “Tahrir for Clarinet and Orchestra,” Neal Brostoff, a visiting lecturer in Jewish music history at UCLA, had an idea. The concerto sounded “surprisingly Jewish,” he thought, and not just because the soloist was the eminent klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer. 

At 28, the New York-born Fairouz is among the most accomplished composers of his generation. Many of his scores blend Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic texts, an aspect of his art that further intrigued Brostoff. So he called Fairouz, who turned out to be as eloquent a speaker as he is a musician. 

“Mohammed is fascinated with Hebrew texts,” Brostoff said, “and that engaged my interest in Israeli composers Betty Olivero and Tsippi Fleischer, who are equally beguiled by Arabic poetry.”

Along with Neal Stulberg, music director of the UCLA Philharmonia, Brostoff developed “Listening to the Other: Mideast Musical Dialogues,” a week of public performances, master classes and panel discussions that will take place at multiple UCLA campus venues Dec. 2-8. Fairouz will be part of a symposium on the politics of Middle Eastern musical collaborations, “Remapping the Middle East Playlist,” on Dec. 4 at the Hammer Museum.

On Dec. 5 at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, vocalist Odeya Nini will lead two vocal chamber works —Olivero’s “Makamat” and Fleischer’s “Moderna” for female voice, cello and oud (an ancestor of the lute). The same program will feature a new work by David Lefkowitz, “On the Pain of Separation,” for ney (an Arabic flute), oud and chamber ensemble. 

“Listening to the Other” culminates on Dec. 8 at Royce Hall with two West Coast premieres: Fairouz’s  “Tahrir,” with Krakauer as soloist, and, in the program’s second half, his hour-long Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers,” for mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra.  

The American premiere of Alexander Krein’s “Kaddish,” symphonic cantata for tenor solo, mixed chorus and large orchestra, fills out the first half of the program.

“Poems and Prayers” features the UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale and University Chorus, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone David Kravitz and tenor Ashley Faatoalia. 

“It was a wonderful vote of confidence that Mohammed not only entrusted us with the West Coast premiere, but with the work’s first commercial recording,” Stulberg said of Fairouz’s large-scale symphony. 

Indeed, the UCLA musicians will be recording both “Tahrir” and “Poems and Prayers” in Royce Hall for the Sono Luminus label.

Stulberg said the texts in the symphony “range from the ritual words of the Kaddish to the deeply personal reflections” of poets Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan.

“Our choral singers have spent all semester learning to pronounce and deliver Hebrew text,” Stulberg added. “The work features the orchestra as an equal and often independent element in the drama.”

Fairouz regards the Royce Hall recording sessions and concert as no less than a professional engagement. “I’m treating these students as the professionals they are,” Fairouz said. “This is an opportunity for them to interact with poetry in a musical setting that they ordinarily would not have. For me, it’s about that.”

Fairouz met Krakauer through mutual friends. “He wrote the concerto for me in an Arabic style, and I play it in a Jewish way,” Krakauer said. “So, symbolically that’s a very cool thing. His concerto gets this beautiful Jewish-Arabic musical dialogue going.”

Krakauer also performs on “Tahwidah” (Lullaby), a duo for clarinet and soprano, which opens “Native Informant,” Fairouz’s latest CD on Naxos. A version of “Tahwidah” appears in the symphony “Poems and Prayers.” 

In “Tahrir” — the title refers to the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, and is Arabic for “liberation” — Krakauer said Fairouz left him plenty of room to improvise. “There’s a lot of stuff I do with ornamentation, so he wrote a simple melody, and there are these quarter-tones he wanted,” Krakauer recalled. 

The clarinetist, who called Fairouz “a huge talent,” added that a slightly revised version of “Tahrir” will be performed at Royce Hall. “I haven’t seen it yet,” Krakauer said, “but he’s written something to give the piece a bit more structure and more of his imprint.”

For Krakauer, the importance of composers like Fairouz and events like “Listening to the Other” cannot be underestimated. “Being involved in the arts, playing music, is a great gift,” Krakauer said. “Without raising a flag or holding a gun, we can be strongly political by putting good things out in the world as a counterforce to all the unreasonable forces. A society without the arts is barbaric.”

Fairouz agrees. Besides giving great pleasure, he hopes his work acts as such a counterbalance. Indeed, having a choir and soloists singing great words by poets often thought of as being on different sides of the fence is a key element in his Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers.” 

“That’s part of a larger return to language endeavor,” Fairouz said. “All of our problems are caused by a deterioration in the way we talk to each other, in the way that we use language. We are sharing something very vital when we empower people to see what sort of difference they can make by listening to one another.”

Fairouz said the cultural richness of the Arabic and Jewish communities is often taken for granted, and that only a shared cultural dialogue can bring lasting peace, rather than “a cold peace — a peace of nations and economics.” 

“Audience members and musicians may not know Amichai’s or Darwish’s poetry,” Fairouz said, “but as a Middle Eastern composer, when you sit down at your writing desk, the power of thousands of years of history is rushing through your veins. You are setting some of the most powerful words to music.”

Fairouz was the last student accepted by the late György Ligeti, and he recalls the innovative Hungarian composer telling him, “Your burden will be to make your music timely; your challenge, to make it timeless.”

Fairouz has just completed a violin concerto for Rachel Barton Pine, premiering in March, and is currently working on a cello concerto for Israeli cellist Maya Beiser and the Detroit Symphony, led by Leonard Slatkin. Fairouz is also writing a Kol Nidre for Beiser.

Engaging Jewish culture through poetry, prayers and other rituals does not feel alien to Fairouz. “It’s our shared heritage,” he said. “It’s not complicated. We are a family, one culture. We have differences, but Israel is not going into the sea, and the Arabs are not going to disappear.”

For a performance schedule or other information, visit listeningtotheother.org or call (818) 716-6211.

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