The Omicron Variant is here – but, fortunately, it has not put a damper on the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s Hallelujah Festival which opened last Thursday (December 2nd) in the Henry Crown auditorium with the Israeli premiere of the oratorio Zabur by Arab-American composer Muhammad Fairouz, in which four choirs, including my own (the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir) took part.
Zabur is the Arabic name for the Book of Psalms, known in Islam as the Book of Dawoud (David). The oratorio tells the story of a young poet and blogger in war-torn Syria, trapped with a group of adults and children in a bomb shelter which offers no real protection and which is destined, ultimately, to become their tomb.
I have to say, I was not overly enamoured of the piece when we started to work on it, last year. It was supposed to be performed in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to that. We resumed work on it at the end of this summer, when the relaxation of lockdown restrictions seemed to presage the imminent return to some kind of normality. I still did not like it. The subject is completely depressing and I found much of the music jarring – as well as very difficult to sing, chiefly because the requirements of singing in Arabic, with its emphasised glottal and guttural consonants and vowels unfamiliar to the native English speaker (although not entirely strange to the Hebrew-speaker), are in complete contradiction to the requirements of singing western music (especially if you happen to be a high soprano, as I am). However, with familiarity, I warmed to the piece and by the time the first orchestra rehearsal came round, I was already humming bits of it to myself in the shower and one particular section even stuck in my head as a highly persistent earworm.
It was all starting to come together – as is so often the case when a piece which one has previously rehearsed only in segments reaches the stage when all the participants (in this case, four choirs, two soloists and the orchestra) finally meet.
Of course, there had to be a hitch. The new COVID restrictions which came into force a couple of days before the concert was due to take place meant that the tenor soloist, who was supposed to fly in from Germany the day before the concert, was forced to cancel and Aaron Blake of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, who, fortuitously, was already in Israel to sing the role of Alfredo in the Jerusalem Opera’s concert performance of La Traviata, took over, learned the role of Jibreel in two days and saved the day.
The oratorio starts with the choirs singing (in Arabic) verses from Psalm 2:
|1 Why are the nations in an uproar? And why do the peoples mutter in vain?|
|2 The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together, |
against the LORD, and against His anointed:
|3 ‘Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.’|
|4 He that sitteth in heaven laugheth, the Lord hath them in derision.|
For me, the moment when the piece took on real meaning was at the first orchestra rehearsal, when the Ankor Children’s Choir performed their first long section in English. In the oratorio, the people in the bomb shelter have been without electricity, light, food and water for days. The young blogger, Dawoud, can no longer bring himself to write about the horrors he is witnessing all about him – and in any case, with no electricity and no internet, there is no way he can get his words out to the world – and his friend and companion Jibreel suggests it would be therapeutic for all of them if he were to allow them to participate in writing the poems which is all Dawoud can bring himself to write now. Dawoud agrees, Jibreel gathers the children, and they ask:
Can we tell them we are hungry? Can we tell them? I would like to have some chocolate!
Can we tell them we cannot sleep because it is loud? Can we tell them? Do they know?
Do they know that we didn’t do anything, can we tell them that?
Can we tell them how much it hurts our hearts to see our parents die before our eyes?
Can we tell them?
I filmed this at the rehearsal on stage. And that was the moment I started to cry.
As the second half of the oratorio draws to a close, the denizens of the shelter – which proves to be no shelter at all – rise up to sing their final song. As the composer himself writes in the programme notes:
“Dawoud’s eternal, resonating final lines…allow the people to move beyond their confused, disastrous present and touch something timeless and eternal.”
And so the oratorio ends with the words of Psalm 102:
|25 I say: ‘O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days, Thou whose years endure throughout all generations.|
|26 Of old Thou didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands.|
|27 They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure; |
yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall pass away;
|28 But Thou art the selfsame, and Thy years shall have no end.|
|29 The children of Thy servants shall dwell securely, and their seed shall be established before Thee.|
The last verse (29) is sung by the children, as the music slows down and slowly fades out, like a distant voice, coming from a tomb.
It is heartbreaking.
And, not for the first time, I found myself wondering at the world’s indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people in the ongoing civil war. But then, this is one Middle East conflict in which the usual scapegoat, Israel, is not involved. Without the possibility of laying the blame on the Jewish state, nobody – not the UN, not the EU, not the superpowers – seems to give a damn.