Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

Rita Kohn — “Indianapolis Symphonic Choir’s Islam-inspired oratorio”

The art world is abuzz with anticipation for what’s happening in  Indianapolis in April 2015. Stand by to learn more about how the Center for Interfaith Cooperation plans to help use the world premiere of the oratorio “Zabur” to provoke important conversations in the community.

Rita Kohn, “Indianapolis Symphonic Choir’s Islam-inspired oratorio,” NUVO September 19 2014

Safe programming for a whole season isn’t an option for the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. So it was with more than a bit of curiosity that I represented NUVO at ISC’s Choral Roundtable Symposium on Sept. 16 in Butler University’s Robertson Hall. What, I wondered, could deliver on the level of Benjamin Britten’s massive War Requiem that closed ISC’s 77th season in May?

Wondering turned to actuality. With a grant from Lilly Endowment, ISC is commissioning a new work, Zabur by Mohammed Fairouz, based on the “idea of interfaith connectivity and the use of the Psalms [of David],” explained Dr. Eric Stark, ISC’s artistic director. But the work isn’t being written from “the safe” Judaic/Christian perspective. Rather the piece is inspired by the Islamic faith and takes its structure from the arc of four Revelations that comprise the Islamic Holy Books: Tawrat revealed to Musa (Torah, the Five Books of Moses); Zabur revealed to Dawud (the songs/ poems of David); Injil revealed to Isa (The Gospels of Jesus); and Qur’an revealed to Mohammed.

The three major faiths branching from the same tree each accept the concept that David sang his Psalms (Tehilim, Praises in Hebrew) and passed on this tradition to the people living at that time some 3,000 years ago. While the original music has been lost (or simply not yet found), the Psalms have been set to new music over the centuries and continue to touch us personally and communally.

Fairouz’s music will be accompanied by a libretto by Najla Said based on three of David’s songs, starting with Psalm 2, where as the king he ponders, “Why do the nations rage so furiously together?” The other two songs are Psalm 22, where he laments directly to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” and Psalm 102, where he cries out for divine guidance and help, “Hear my prayer.” This choice of texts brings out the similarities between the inter-nation confrontations dealt with by David and those of our time.

The ISC is asking the roundtable, which is comprised of representatives of a range of community organizations and of which I’m a part, to find ways to encourage everyone in Central Indiana to engage with the piece. Stark sees this as an opportunity for the community at large to make a statement that resonates toward achieving peace within ourselves and between each other on every level. We would thus would be fulfilling David’s lifelong goal toward attaining wisdom, which he interpreted as knowledge leading toward living in harmony with our natural world and our cultural and political structures.

We’re to start now with events and programs for people of all ages and walks of life, and we hope to be one heart and mind for the April 25th world premiere of Zabur and as a unified commitment thereafter. Performing with ISC will be the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, along with tenor Lawrence Wiliford and baritone Michael Kelley as soloists.

“Eric [Stark] likes to shake things up, for us as well as for the community-at-large,” commented Michael Pettry, ISC’s executive director, on the way out. Indeed the roundtable prompted me to move beyond my comfortable Judaic/Christian point of view to experience texts as Mohammed interpreted them. I’m doing some research to help me along the journey. My first three reads: David’s Songs: His Psalms and Their Story by Colin Eisler, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; David: A Biography by Barbara Cohen and The Psalms of David with illustrations by James S. Freemantle.

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