It’s not every day you expect a major talk show to spotlight a composer from the world of contemporary classical music. But Mohammed Fairouz has a way of defying expectations: Last May, MSNBC’s Morning Joe presented a segment on the young Arab-American composer — just one indication that Fairouz, only 30 years old, has rapidly become one of the most visible figures in the new-music scene.
This month brings his latest album (which is being celebrated on February 17 with an evening of performance and poetry readings at New York’s (le) poisson rouge, where two of the tracks will receive their live world premieres.
An underlying thread to Fairouz’s vision is a self-confessed obsession with words. As far as he is concerned, music and poetry are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing drives.
Titled No Orpheus, the album gathers songs Fairouz has written over the past 10 years and offers an appealing point of entry into his multifaceted imagination.
Active across the realms of concert music, song, opera, theater and film, the New York-based Fairouz is omnivorous in his creative passions. But an underlying thread to his vision is a self-confessed obsession with words — narratives, texts and the ancient, undying magic of poetry. As far as Fairouz is concerned, music and poetry are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing drives.
That’s why Gramophone magazine’s tagging of the composer as “a post-millennial Schubert” is particularly apt. Like Schubert, Fairouz brings an instantly recognizable sensitivity to his settings of texts, blending his lyrical gift with astonishing gestures that amplify a poem’s subterranean implications.
This album is a sort of songbook. It provides a sampler of my songs spanning a decade
On No Orpheus, his poets of choice include Wordsworth, Yeats, W.H. Auden, Edgar Allan Poe, a homoerotic Arabic poem from the Middle Ages by Ibn Shuhayd (in his own English translation) and contemporary writer Wayne Koestenbaum.
Fairouz additionally sets texts culled from the journals of Gustav Mahler’s wife Alma, which were commissioned by Kate Lindsey — the superb mezzo-soprano featured on the album and an ongoing muse for the composer. She also sings on Follow, Poet, Fairouz’s impressive debut on the prestigious, legendary classical label Deutsche Grammophon. With its release in 2015, Fairouz became the youngest composer in DG’s history to have an entire album dedicated to his music.
About his new release, Fairouz says: “This album is a sort of songbook. It provides a sampler of my songs spanning a decade, spurred on by my love affair with the human voice and with Arabic and English texts ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. The poetry deals with love, loss, social upheaval and all those other very human concerns that we have.”
The new release is merely the latest in a wave of a creative frenzy that finds Fairouz in demand for large-scale commissions across the globe.
Last month, for example, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin premiered his new cello concerto, Desert Sorrows, a piece commissioned for the adventurous, Israeli-born American cellist Maya Beiser.
In his review, Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker described a moment when “the ensemble ascended to a furious climax topped by a percussive thwack as if God were lowering the final boom,” adding that the work’s “overall impact… justified the attention he’s been getting.”
Attention is indeed being paid. A few weeks ago it was announced that Fairouz has been commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival to create a major musical work that will coincide with Expo 2020 Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Before that project is realized, two large-scale, highly anticipated operas on which he is currently working will have been unveiled.
We can do wonderful things if we apply our collective effort and break down walls
Dutch National Opera (one of the world’s leading opera companies) has commissioned The New Prince to open in 2017. Here Fairouz is partnering with prominent Washington Post columnist and best-selling thriller novelist David Ignatius to create a groundbreaking opera that reflects on the human lessons of world history through the lens of Niccolò Machiavelli’s much-misunderstood figure The Prince.
After that comes Bhutto (to be premiered at Pittsburgh Opera in 2018), which explores one of the pivotal political families of our time; its libretto, by leading Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, dramatizes the relationship between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto, the first female elected as the head of state of a Muslim nation.
For Fairouz, composing and making music are essential to understanding the challenges of our times. “We can do wonderful things if we apply our collective effort and break down walls,” he says. “That is what a renaissance is defined by: the breaking down of walls.”