This afternoon Coro Allegro presents the first of four premieres and commissions by American composers we perform this Spring. As part of our celebration of David Hodgkins' 25th year as Artistic Director, we are proud to build upon Coro Allegro's tradition of presenting compelling additions to the choral repertoire.
Rage Against the tyrant(s)
There are two ways in which a composer comes to setting a text to music. The first is an instance when a text connects so viscerally with a composer that there is no choice but to set it. When, on the other hand, a commission is requested from a composer, for a concert with a broad theme, it is up to him or her to find the right text. This path is, by far, the more difficult of the two and such was my experience with this commission from Coro Allegro. I was very happy to be approached by David Hodgkins about writing a new work for Coro Allegro that dealt with some element of the crisis in Syria. At first, I hesitated, because since 2011, when the uprising in Syria began, almost all of my concert music output has focused on this theme. As Syria, and specifically Aleppo, had become synonymous with cruelty and the greatest failure of our generation, I felt that I had said all I needed to say on the topic, for now, and I needed a break. But things change, not least of all the 2016 election results here in the USA. So I felt that I did need to write this work but I wanted to create a work that was both specific, Syria, and broad, tyranny. So began the work of finding the right text with the end result being the street chants, poetry and liturgical text here.
The uprisings in the Arab world began with simple but fundamental demands, often expressed through protest chants. That people had to erupt on to the streets, and suffer for it, to demand 'bread, freedom, and social justice' still brings me great sadness. The euphoria felt by the protesters in some of these countries was viciously tempered by the realities of the cruelty that their governments were prepared to mete out upon them. Iraqi-American poet and author Sinan Antoon's 'When I was torn by war' reflects this harsh reality to great effect with his compact but powerful poem. Even though he wrote it in 1990 and was reflecting on the situation of Iraq at that time, Antoon's poem's image of endless war is enduring in its relevance and emotional impact. The destruction of Aleppo, and the lament over this tragic loss, is captured in Syrian-American poet and author Mohja Kahf's "Aleppo the Necklace Broke All the Words Fell Apart." Kahf's 'list poem' is, like the city it describes, multi-layered with meaning and history; both distant past and recent. For instance, the line "blood river" alludes to the executions of seventy-nine or so men and teenage boys in January of 2013. Their bodies were dumped in a river in Aleppo (I still remember the day I saw the photos in the news). Kahf's poem also addresses Aleppo's multi-cultural and multi-faith past with references to both an Armenian folk song as well as Jewish liturgical songs. "Gnen Abde" is a traditional Syriac - a language similar to Aramaic - prayer used during Holy Week. The text tells of Christ, on the night of his passion, washing the feet of his disciples, some of whom were about to betray him. His example of forgiveness is on of the most enduring throughout the ages, but I chose this text because I am asking "when do we forgive those who betrayed us?" The final text comes from my brother, Elias Roustom. It speaks of a glorious past, perhaps real or imagined, and the willingness of a people to strike a bargain with tyrants in order to 'go along to get along.' This is what the text tells us happened in Syria but it is also a warning, for the complacent, about what could happen anywhere.
-- Kareem Roustom
Songs of Ascent
Songs of Ascent began in a very simple way; I wanted to try my hand at a choral setting of Psalm 121 ("I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills"), my grandmother's favorite psalm. But then I noticed the fine print beneath the psalm title: "a song of degrees." Consulting another translation, I found the phrase "a song of ascents." I had never noticed this designation, and investigation revealed a subset of pilgrimage psalms (#120 through #134) that are collectively referred to as the "songs of degrees" or "songs of ascent."
A melodic idea for Ps. 121 came quickly, and, while I was at it, I looked at the next psalm, the 122nd ("I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord'"). I quickly found a melody for it too, and realized that a psalm cycle of "songs of ascent" would be a great composing project. It remained a matter of selecting additional psalms to create a cohesive multi-movement work.
Psalms 121 and 122 have been set many times by composers through the centuries, as has Psalm 130 ("Out of the depths"). Two other "songs of ascent" feature prominently in Bernstein's Chichester Psalms: Ps. 131 ("Lord, my heart is not haughty") and Ps. 133 ("Behold, how good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity"). But the rest were mostly new to me. Some are very expressive of suffering and conflict, such as Ps. 120 ("In my distress") and Ps. 129 ("Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth"). One psalm is outright problematic: Ps. 124 ("If it had not been the Lord who was on our side"). Bob Dylan's ironic anti-war song "With God on Our Side" expresses my feelings about this dangerous sentiment. I wasn't sure I could set it at all, but then I imagined two male soloists singing this same text from opposite sides of the stage in a politico-religious "duel." It turned out that many of the psalm phrases were easy to work with musically, perhaps because I was using the poetic (if archaic) King James translation.
Over the six-year development of this project, I have set all but two of the fifteen "songs of ascent." For the initial premiere with the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2015, I included nine of the psalms, and ordered them according to key, rising movement to movement by thirds: F# - A - C - E - G - B - D. But, in my delighted discovery of this "meant-to-be" harmonic "ascent," I had to let go of several of the more dramatic psalms I had been working on, including the "dueling" Ps. 124. After a few subsequent performances, though, I began to feel that Songs of Ascent like any extended work of art - needed to have adequate conflict to sustain itself dramatically over its entirety, and that its final form had not yet been achieved.
This performance with Coro Allegro is the first to feature the "missing movements" that comprise a new middle section of Songs of Ascent. The piece begins as it did, with the opening movements establishing a foundation, literally and figuratively. The cantor sings Ps. 132 ("Lord, Remember David"), recalling David's quest to find a fitting place for the Ark of the Covenant - ultimately the Temple in Jerusalem. The chorus responds in the second movement (Ps. 122), voicing their longing for return to the Temple: "Our feet shall stand within the gates, O Jerusalem." After a soprano solo expressive of great humility (Ps. 131), the chorus rounds out the opening section with another "foundational" psalm, the 127th ("Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it"). The wholeness of the well-founded "intact community" is described with the final phrases of Psalm 128: "Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee."
Then the new movements bring the dramatic "turn": the tenor and baritone soloists - I imagine them as estranged brothers - sing the aforementioned "dueling" psalm, each more insistent than the other that "the Lord is on their side." The women of the chorus respond with Ps. 120 "In my distress I cried unto the Lord." I think of them as a "chorus of mothers," mourning for loved ones lost, bearing witness to the real costs of entrenched conflict and war, and angrily grieving the futility of their protest: "I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war." But, unmoved, the male soloists duel once more, this time vying over who has suffered the most (while justifying their own acts of revenge) in Ps. 129 ("Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth"). As if humanity has hit rock-bottom, the full chorus responds with Ps. 130 ("Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee"). But hope comes in the final lines: "If thou should'st count iniquities, who shall stand? But there is for forgiveness with thee."
The remaining psalms suggest a path toward reconciliation, and toward reunion at the Temple in Jerusalem. After the comfort and respite of Psalm 121 "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills," sung by the chorus, the soprano soloist returns for Ps. 126 ("They that sow in tears shall reap in joy"), her voice soaring in gratitude while the male soloists at last sing together in harmony. The chorus responds with Psalm 133 ("Behold, how good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity"). All that remains is to enter into the Temple. The chorus' theme, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord,'" first sung in anticipation in movement 2, is now sung in culmination. A lilting dance-like melody in the strings ushers the people through the gates and the chorus exults to the words of the final "song of ascent," Ps. 134: "Behold, bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, which...[at last]... stand in the house of the Lord."
-- Shawn Kirchner
Program notes © Kareem Roustom, Shawn Kirchner