Performing Zabur — An insider’s report
A couple of years ago now, when I was asked by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir (ISC) staff to attend one or two of the community conversations about this new major work the choir would be commissioning, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. As an ordained pastor interested in interfaith collaboration, and as an alto in the choir itself, I was keen to be part of this brave idea and see how I could contribute to the birth of a piece that might capture the heart of the city, that would bring hope and meaning . . . that would really endure.
Periods of months would pass in between communications about how the commission process was going, but that was to be expected. There were a ton of moving parts. Finally, I sat in a windowless room on the Butler campus one morning. I was in a meeting designed to help narrow the field of composers so that a final selection could be made. Could it be that this up-and-coming composer named Mohammed Fairouz would be our pick? The answer would come later, but I was delighted by the idea of such a fresh and different voice coming our way and partnering with us to create a piece that could be shared – in part or in whole – by collections of folks exploring the themes of war and peace, loss and hope, heartbreak and mending.
Then when the manuscripts for the new piece, Zabur, finally arrived and the ISC began rehearsals, my heart sank.
I guess I’m too much of a Faure and Brahms fan. The piece was more contemporary in its sound than I’d bargained for. Our opening notes? A modified scream. And later, the chorus would be humming. For a long time. To mimic the sound of a generator working overtime in a power outage. And what’s this? The chorus stays silent for something like 8 pages? Not to mention we’d be singing in Arabic. I was deflated.
But that’s because I didn’t get it yet.
Rehearsals were painstaking and tedious. The larger context of the work remained a mystery. But, piece by piece, as he always does, our artistic director Dr. Eric Stark and his staff brought things into focus. They provided background on discussions with the composer and shared a mini documentary on Fairouz’s style and musical visions. We got excellent coaching to get our arms – and mouths – around that Arabic. We were provided with text translations, scripture references for this work based in the Psalms, and more.
Then, as it always does, things snapped together like a puzzle when production week – and the composer – arrived. Boyish in his hoodie sweatshirt, humble, and clearly brilliant, he softly spoke to the choir about how much the piece meant to him as he created it and how it was now ours to share. During the dress rehearsal, we went through the piece uninterrupted. And when Dr. Stark let the baton drop after the final note, we knew something special had just crystalized in front of all of us.
There was a lump in my throat the night of the show as the fantastic opening film by Owen Thomas played in front of us, explaining to the audience why this piece was born. It wasn’t just about artistic expression. It wasn’t to prove a point as an arts organization. It was to start a conversation. Even with a microphone, Mohammed’s hushed voice was barely audible as he spoke after the performance of the desperate for the world to pay attention and offer hope to places at are being shredded apart. Places like Syria. To pay attention and to offer hope. That was the point.
I got to speak with Mohammed myself. “You’re part of the ISC family now.” “Because of the piece?” he said. I nodded. He broke out into a smile and hugged me. “I love that,” he said. Indeed, Zabur will always remind me that we are family to each other.
Rev. Lisa Marchal