The Cecilia Chorus of New York commissioned the Syrian born, Polish educated composer Zaid Jabri to write a piece to accompany Brahms’s beloved Requiem for the Chorus’s May 6 Carnegie Hall concert. Jabri’s work, A Garden Among the Flames, completes a cycle of newly commissioned works which the Chorus, under the direction of Maestro Mark Shapiro, has performed at each concert of the 2016-2017 season.
“I was looking for someone who could create a work that might be thought of as beginning, spiritually and philosophically, where Brahms left off in his Requiem," says Shapiro. "Something poetic and lyrical that could build on the ecumenical theme of Brahms’s piece. For that we needed a creative, exacting, and highly-trained composer, and Zaid Jabri is all of those things. His deep understanding of counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration gives him complete control over the sound he is creating.”
Librettist Yvette Christiansë wrote a poem complementing the original text by Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi upon which Jabri based A Garden Among the Flames. Her choice was to contrast the message of tolerance and peace in the 13th century poem with the reality of refugees fleeing intolerance and war today. (You can read interviews with Zaid Jabri and Yvette Christiansë in our March 27 newsletter.)
Shapiro had no trouble deciding on the soprano and baritone soloists for the Brahms and the Jabri. “I had worked with both Sidney Outlaw and Chelsea Shephard before and I knew what amazing artists they both are. Chelsea’s voice is a rare combination of sweet and powerful. Sidney’s is flexible, versatile, rounded, and supple. Both are terrific musicians—very smart and very disciplined. I have tremendous respect for both of them.”
“All music should be sung as if it were new music.”
Referring to the cycle of new works that Shapiro has commissioned for the current Chorus season, he says, “When we learn new music that has never been performed before, we have to work our way into it. We have to build new ways of learning music and of hearing it in general. In fact, that’s how we should prepare the classical repertoire as well, hearing and singing work we have long loved but with fresh ears. It is good for experienced singers to be confronted with less familiar sounds that don’t have the patina of music we know well from prior performances.”
“The relevance of A Garden Among the Flames in today’s world brings us right to the heart of the music. And with Oedipus the King by the Brothers Balliett, which we performed in March, an ancient story was retold in a fresh, new way. Both of these approaches spark singers’ curiosity as they delve into the pieces, and that’s how we should approach the well-known works as well. All music should be sung as if it were new music.”