‘Desert Sorrows’ Achieves Embrace Exceeding Depth

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Mohammed Fairouz is the composer of 'Desert Sorrows.' (Photo: Samantha West)
Mohammed Fairouz composed ‘Desert Sorrows.’ (Samantha West)
By Garrett Schumann

DETROIT – The first audience members to stand and applaud Mohammed Fairouz’s cello concerto Desert Sorrows, which received its world premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Jan. 16, wasted no time in showing their appreciation for soloist Maya Beiser’s performance and Fairouz’s creation. No more than five seconds elapsed between the work’s piercing, ascendant conclusion and the beginning of the standing ovation, which consumed the sell-out crowd and sustained itself through three curtain calls for Fairouz, Beiser, and the Detroit Symphony’s music director, Leonard Slatkin.

The concertgoers’ unified response, though not uncommon, was noteworthy to me because I know the Detroit Symphony’s audience is made up of people from all over Southeast Michigan. The regional dispersal of the symphony’s patrons is representative of the suburban diaspora that crippled Detroit decades ago.

However, the Detroit Symphony helps to countervail this history by bringing people into the heart of the city. The Max M. Fisher Music Center, which the orchestra calls home, is only blocks away from many of downtown’s biggest revitalization projects, and the orchestra still performs in a space that dates back to 1919, a time when Detroit was filled with optimism.

Maya Beiser was the cello soloist in 'Desert Sorrows.'
Maya Beiser was the cello soloist in ‘Desert Sorrows.’

I found a parallel for the Detroit Symphony’s power to bring its audience together in the flow of the Saturday evening program, which traced a gradual accumulation of performers from 12  players to large orchestra with soloist. This process began with the night’s first piece, Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Double Bass, Op. 44, a gentle opening to the concert that offered the orchestra’s talented woodwinds a rare opportunity to take center stage. Next, it was the strings’ turn with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20. The slow middle movement was strikingly beautiful, and the last movement remarkably clever, as it fashioned new settings for themes from the preceding movements.

The concert’s second half began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D (Prague). Though it was composed in 1786, the same year as The Marriage of Figaro, the Prague seems more closely related to Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute. The connection emerges in the Allegro section of the symphony’s first movement, which is dominated by a theme built around the same rhythmic figure, and developed in a similar contrapuntal fashion, as the main theme of The Magic Flute’s overture.

Furthermore, more subtle resemblances were apparent in the orchestration, cadences, and other harmonic tropes. I found the similarities between the first movement of this symphony and the overture to The Magic Flute so uncanny, I would encourage any reader to listen to them back-to-back and hear the parallels themselves.

The DSO produced a webcast of the Jan. 17 concert, with cellist Maya Beiser the soloist in Fairouz's 'Desert Sorrows.'
From a webcast of the Jan. 17 concert, including Fairouz’s ‘Desert Sorrows.’

Desert Sorrows marked both the culmination of the evening’s program and orchestra’s growth, as it featured more percussion, winds, and brass than the Mozart. The Detroit Symphony has made a habit of commissioning concertos over the last few years, and has given the world premiere of five concertos, including Fairouz’s, in the last three seasons, with Aaron Jay Kernis’ Flute Concerto yet to come Jan. 21-23 with soloist Marina Piccinini. Though only 30 years old, Fairouz is experienced writing big pieces and has already produced one opera, four symphonies, and three concertos. He is Arab-American — his parents are both doctors with Palestinian heritage — and his music constantly intersects with subject matter broadly relevant to the Arab world and Arab-American experience.

Incidentally, similarities exist between Fairouz and two other composers on Saturday’s program: Dvořák and Elgar. Odd as it may sound in 2016, both Dvořák’s Czech Republic and Elgar’s England were seen as being on the fringe of Europe’s musical universe in the 19th century. As a result, composers like Dvořák and Elgar were expected to express unique characteristics of their national identity (usually through the use of folk tunes), as well as meet the standards of the Germanic musical tradition that ruled classical music at the time, and still does to an extent.

DSO music director Leonard Slatkin conducted.
DSO music director Leonard Slatkin conducted.

Fairouz described himself similarly in the program, noting that he maintains strong artistic connections to his American present and his Arabic heritage. In this way, he seems to position himself as an outsider injecting unique aspects of his Middle Eastern identity into the context of Western contemporary concert music. In Desert Sorrows, he draws on a bricolage of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian mythology involving end times and archangels to form a momentous backdrop for the concerto. In printed and online materials, the Detroit Symphony particularly emphasized the symbolism of the Arab-American composer’s collaboration with cellist Beiser, who is Israeli.

Beiser’s performance was dramatic and grand, if not a bit grandiloquent, and succeeded in drawing the audience into Fairouz’s thick orchestral textures and persistent grooves. Beyond the work’s two cadenzas, the orchestra and soloist played together for nearly the 30-minute work’s complete duration, with the cello playing pseudo-improvisatory material above a steadily rhythmic foundation. I saw many people express their engagement with Fairouz’s music and Beyser’s performance by bobbing their heads and tapping their toes to the beat.

Ultimately, Desert Sorrows did not meet the gravitas of its subject matter. Fairouz’s music lacked the intensity needed to convey profound concepts like the apocalypse and lasting world peace. Still, the performance seemed to thrill much of the audience. Desert Sorrows unquestionably united the Detroit Symphony’s audience, and for that Fairouz, Beiser, and the orchestra’s artistic leadership deserve immense credit.

Garrett Schumann is a composer and internationally published music scholar who serves as artistic director for ÆPEX Contemporary Performance. Learn more about Garrett at garrettschumann.com or on Twitter @garrt.