MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: Tahrir; Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers” – Soloists/ UCLA Philharmonia & Chorus/ Neal Stulberg – Sono Luminus

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: Tahrir; Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers” – David Krakauer, clarinet/ Sasha Cooke, mezzo-sop./ David Kravitz, bar./ UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale, and University Chorus/ Neal Stulberg – Sono Luminus Pure Audio Blu-ray+CD DSL-92177, 70:30 (7.1 DTS-HD MA 24/96K, 5.1 DTS-HD MA 24/192K, 2.0 PCM 24/192K) [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

Mohammed Fairouz, at 29 years old, has made an enormous splash in the musical world the last few years. Audiophile Audition has reviewed quite a few of his works, to mixed acclaim, though always with the caveat that there seems great potential in the artist that perhaps hasn’t been quite fulfilled. Talented he is, without question, and before all is said and done, prolific as well. And I suppose that one can forgive him for being obsessed, as an Arab-American, with the ongoing issues plaguing the Middle East. Yet so many politically-inspired works that have actually lasted over the years are not remembered for the events that inspired them, but only for the music and the deeper humanitarian constructs present in them, a la Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

This is not to criticize the effort to conceptualize the issues in a musical form, but in many ways the performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall is singing to the choir, so to speak. I am sure that few present were not moved by the sentiments expressed, and all hope for a better world; yet if art has the potential to make such an impact—and that is highly debatable—then the results of the effort will be difficult to gauge until the time when the piece is performed before a crowd of Israeli extremists or ISIS fascists. Convince them, not us, Mr. Fairouz, and you will have truly accomplished sometime “real time”. As is, at least in the case of the Third Symphony, we can only be moved by the sentiments and inspired by one Muslim composer’s hope for reconciliation without clouding the issues with hyperbole and intellectual obscurity.

Unfortunately the extensive notes to this release, by UCLA musicologist Tamara Levitz, do little to relieve this unresolved esoteric, and even gnostic sensibility surrounding the music. Rarely have I read such unrelenting intellectual clutter about the philosophical and political foundations of any piece of music, and none of it helps Fairouz. I cannot for one moment believe that he was thinking more of the Israeli siege of Ramallah in 2002 in the second movement of the Symphony than whether the B-flat in the strings was consistent with the unresolved “A” in the alto section—just to make up an example—yet the notes would imbue such moment by moment philosophy into every bar. In fact, Fairouz alternates Jewish and Palestinian texts in each of the four movements, using the opening “Kaddish” (Jewish prayer for the dead) as a sort of idee fixe (though not as prominent) to unify the whole.

The first movement makes no pretense in easing us into the quietness of prayer—it hits you full blast in a tempestuous storm of praise that only gradually gives way to more reflective purpose. The second movement “Lullaby” reflects on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, once considered the unofficial poet of Palestine. “Night Fantasy” is set to texts of Fadwa Tuqan (who died in 2003), known for her poetic protestations of living under Israeli occupation. The finale “Memorial Day for the War Dead”, a half-hour tour-de-force of great emotion provenance, is based on poetry of Yehuda Amichai, prize-winner galore and perhaps the greatest poet of Israel, and one of the most famous in the world. Fairouz is fair; I’ll say that—though the music has a distinctive Arabic flavor, which you would expect, most of the symphony is uniquely Jewish in text. The piece is quite substantial, and moving in parts, though I am still not quite convinced whether Fairouz is playing philosopher, poet, politico, or composer. The UCLA student forces do an admirable job in this difficult music navigated with authority by conductor Stulberg, while Sono Luminus has recorded it brilliantly.

Curiously enough though, the more satisfying piece from a purely musical standpoint is the Klezmer clarinet concerto Tahrir. Though the notes indicate that the word means “freedom”, “liberation” is closer, and the two can have different meanings. The piece was inspired by the uprising in 2011 in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, though the argument will continue as to whether it ultimately proves spring or winter. Arab scales are cautiously integrated into the music even though the intensity of David Krakauer’s Klezmer performance disguises any sense of ecumenicity. The piece is tightly constructed and follows fairly traditional outlines from a formal standpoint, and offers us a different take on the composer. No matter what inspired it—and Fairouz has admitted to tremendous textual need when creating his music—you don’t hear the particulars here, and I believe that adds to the success of the work.

As I have said before, I think Fairouz is still a work-in-progress, and when the day comes when he can unclutter the sometimes overripe ideology of his thinking, we might hear some real fireworks.

—Steven Ritter

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