Back Bay Chorale to balance dark and light with Fairouz premiere and Mozart Requiem

March 13, 2013 at 6:38 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Mohammed Fairouz’s “Anything Can Happen” will be heard in its Boston premiere Sunday performed by the Back Bay Chorale.

Even when discussing the dark subject matter explored in his new choral work, Anything Can Happen, Mohammed Fairouz looks on the bright side. “I’m someone who considers myself to be an optimist,” the composer says. “The human race is performing much better now than in the Middle Ages. People are looking for more than their daily bread.”

Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre, the Back Bay Chorale will present the Boston premiere of Fairouz’s Anything Can Happen, a powerful, thought-provoking piece about the end of the world. The concert will contain another work with an equally heavy subject, Mozart’s Requiem.

“Mohammed’s piece is bleak and severe,” said BBC music director Scott Allen Jarrett. “The Requiem is a wonderful counterpoint with his piece.”

Completed last year, Anything Can Happen, like Fairouz’s other large-scale works, deals with hard-hitting philosophical issues and political themes.  In five movements Fairouz’s composition for choir, solo baritone, and viola traverses stark texts that touch on both climate change and biblical passages about world destruction. “Most of my pieces are hopeful, making a vineyard of a curse,” the composer said. “This is the only one to end in ashes.”

Though not yet 30 years old, the New York-born Arab-American composer has enjoyed frequent performances around the United States. Broadly read, widely traveled, and contagiously optimistic, Fairouz has a prolific and impressive output. In the last ten years, he has penned nearly a hundred works in every genre, including four symphonies, an opera, and a host of chamber and vocal music.

His cosmopolitan style and elegant text-setting have earned him such labels as “the post-millennial Schubert” by Gramophone. Jarrett commented that “Mohammed is interested in line and melody that complements Mozart.”

When asked his thoughts on stylistic labels, Fairouz answered that such terms are not important (though he admitted that he likes “post-classical”). “What matters is that you work hard and make your voice worth listening to,” he said.

As with many other pieces in his vast catalogue, Anything Can Happen draws upon literature. Three poems by Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney alternate in the piece with two passages from the Injeel text, the Arabic version of the Christian Bible.

“Iowa,” the basis for the first movement, recalls Heaney’s experiences during a winter storm on a visit to the Hawkeye State in the late 1970s. The poem’s final phrases–“In the slush and rush and hiss/Not of parted but as of rising waters”–are echoed in the  second movement’s verse, sung in Arabic, that tells of the torn veil, shaking earth, and tumbling mountains following Jesus’s crucifixion. Heaney’s 10-line “Höfn” concerns the effects of a melting glacier. The sura of the fourth movement—the Arabic version of Revelation 12:15—offers a similar take on the flood theme.

Present consensus holds that the concluding movement, a setting of Heaney’s “Anything Can Happen,” is a reflection on 9/11. The world pictured in the poem and choral work is reduced to ash, concluding with the phrase “Telluric ash and fire-spoils boil away.” And though the composer said he did not want to comment on exact symbols, he offered this commentary: “Consider the passage [from the poem] ‘Those in high places daunted/Those overlooked regarded.’ Does it stand for the people on the street looking up to the World Trade Center Towers or to the terrorists who had been ignored up to that point? Should we have been more diligent about our national security before then? Probably. These are all hard things to contend with. It’s a hard piece.”

Baritone David Kravitz will perform the solo vocal part. Sunday’s performance of Anything Can Happen will also feature Roger Tapping as soloist —“one of the best violists in the world,” Fairouz said. “I wanted to select an instrument for an obbligato part that expresses the human voice,” Fairouz said of his choice of instrumental accompaniment. “The viola has the entire range of the human voice. And it’s also an instrument that’s under-appreciated and underused.”

The work is a joint commission by Iowa’s Grinnell College, Cantori New York, Boston University’s Marsh Chapel Choir, and the Back Bay Chorale, funded in part from a Choral Arts Alfred Nash Patterson grant.

Baritone Kravitz will also join soprano Teresa Wakim, alto Misty Bermudez, and tenor Stefan Reed to form the vocal quartet in Back Bay Chorale’s performance of Mozart’s dramatic Requiem. 

Mozart’s final work has not been featured on a BBC program in 15 years, and Jarrett and the singers and orchestra hope to present a fresh interpretation. “In a town where there is a lot of attention to performance practice, I like to think we can be a counterpoint to that,” he said.

“We try to consider the music as if for the first time,” he added. “Like Messiah performances, the Requiem is something we know so well. It becomes a wonderful thing, a measure for our lives and development.”

The Requiem literally became a measure of the last days of Mozart’s life. And while none of us will escape that fate, humans may have some power to alter our present course—or at least the stark reality expressed in Anything Can Happen doesn’t completely close off the idea.  “It’s a hopeful piece in that sense,” Fairouz said.

Anything Can Happen will also present the BBC with some unique musical challenges, especially the Arabic language. “It has been interesting to learn the syntax of the language. That’s an exciting aspect for us,” Jarrett said. The accessible style of Fairouz’s music makes it easier to grasp the seemingly insurmountable issues of the subject matter, he added.

For Fairouz, contemporary global issues, like the ones explored in Anything Can Happen, are a source of inspiration. And music, for him, is just one way to engage in dialogue about the most challenging problems of today.

“We reach better places by confronting challenges,” Fairouz said.  “I think we will confront these challenges in productive ways.”

Scott Allen Jarrett will lead the Back Bay Chorale, orchestra and soloists in Fairouz’s Anything Can Happen and Mozart’s Requiem 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre. backbaychorale.org; 617-648-3885.

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