Saturday, April 9, 2016
For many decades now, one of the most intractable problems facing world leaders has been the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Although experienced diplomats have tried their best to bring it about, peace seems beyond their reach. Over the years, a number of artists have tried to bridge the gap in their own ways. Daniel Barenboim, for example, created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to bring young Israeli and Arab musicians together and it has been a huge success. Now we have Compassion, a song cycle based on Arabic and Hebrew texts, a work that expresses the need for people of different cultures to reach out to each other with kindheartedness. At a time when demagogues everywhere are doing their best to turn people against each other, Compassion could not be more timely.
Westlake and Lior Collaboration Across Cultures
Nigel Westlake (1958-) is an Australian composer best known for his film scores. His most notable score was for the 1995 film Babe, which received seven Academy Award nominations. After hearing a concert by the singer-songwriter Lior Attar – or simply “Lior” – Westlake was moved to suggest a collaboration: “Following the concert I suggested to Lior that I take a solo vocal recording of his performance and create a symphonic arrangement around it.” This became the process the two followed in writing Compassion.
The message of Compassion is that the world would be a better place if we were all more understanding and welcoming of other cultures. The power of the work comes from the combination of text and music and the unique quality of Lior’s vocalizing. He has a vast range from bass to high falsetto and he creates the most beautiful melismatic patterns to express emotion.
It should be emphasized that while the seven songs in Compassion sound like traditional Middle Eastern melodies, only one – “Avinu Malkeinu” – is authentic. The others were composed by Lior to fit texts he found in his research into ancient Islamic and Judaic literature.
No Mimicking Here of Hollywood Biblical Epic Scores
I must confess that I was skeptical when I heard about the concept of the piece, fearing that we were in for some kind of half-baked New Age piece with little or no musical sophistication. In fact, Compassion is a deeply serious and complex work. Lior’s vocalism is hypnotic and infinitely expressive in itself. One can imagine him holding an audience spellbound all by himself. Westlake’s contribution is no less impressive. Using a very large orchestra including five percussionists, Westlake has created textures that are almost entirely original. In his score for Babe, Westlake made use of material from Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, but as far as I could tell, there is no borrowing in Compassion. In these songs, Westlake not only provides a symphonic background for Lior, but finds a multitude of ways in which to celebrate Middle Eastern music without actually quoting from it or offering some sort of pale imitation. No doubt as a major film composer himself, Nigel Westlake is familiar with the long history of scores for Hollywood Biblical epics. Let it be said that there is no trace of such bloated fakery in Compassion, and that is no small achievement.
A Piece Sure to Move Audiences the World Over
Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony (ASO) deserve enormous credit for bringing this fine piece to the United States, and this debut may well be the beginning of a whole series of performances across the country. That said, other orchestras will have to go some to match the high level of the performance by the ASO. Bay and his players teased out the minutest details with great care and tore through the trickiest rhythmic passages with total assurance.
The Austin audience loved this piece. Let’s hope they were responding to the importance of the message, as well as to the beauty of the music and the quality of the performance.
For the record, although the Verdi and Schubert pieces were played very well indeed, the most memorable part of the evening was, without a doubt, Compassion.
Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere. Paul’s reviews and articles can be found on Classical Voice North America, La Scena Musicale, and Musical Toronto. This digital review appeared first (3/30/2016) on Musical Toronto.