Universal Music Classics releases a new album on the Deutsche Grammophon imprint of works by Mohammed Fairouz titled Follow, Poet, marking the composer's debut on the Yellow Label, and the first release in Universal Music Classics' Return to Language series. Produced by David Frost, the album includes the elegiac song cycle Audenesque sung by mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey, and the ballet Sadat. Both works feature the New York City chamber orchestra Ensemble LPR conducted by Evan Rogister.
The Return to Language series was conceived by Universal Music Classics president/CEO Elizabeth Sobol, a lifelong lover of literature. "I believe in cultivating a respect and love for depth of language and reflection and expression, even in the age of Twitter and YouTube when some of that seems in danger of being eroded," she says. "And it has always been the interrelatedness of literature and music that has touched me most deeply in art – the exponential power of storytelling when you join words and music."
Sobol says it was only natural that the series be launched with Fairouz's album. "There is a deep humanity and civic devotion to Mohammed's music," she says. "For him, music isn't an abstract art – it has a higher purpose. When I first heard Mohammed's Audenesque, it elicited in me an emotional response similar to when I first heard Jessye Norman singing Strauss's Four Last Songs – it was devastating, the connection between the words and music, the sound and feeling. Musically, Mohammed's pieces are sonically masterful but also contemporary and fresh. There are big gestures but depth, too. Ultimately, his work is beautiful – the ear loves receiving it."
The musical works on this album, Audenesque and Sadat, each exalt the transformative power of language through different means, one poetic, one oratorical. In Audenesque, Fairouz sets verse by the great 20th-century English poet W.H. Auden and late Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney; with Sadat, the composer evokes in an instrumental work the stirring life-story of slain Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Woven among the musical recordings on the album are readings of the Auden and Heaney by Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and fragments of spoken word by John F. Kennedy from one of his less-well-known speeches, including this: "When power leads man to toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."
Fairouz, who is the youngest composer to have an entire album of works recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in the label's 115 year history, writes in his manifesto-like liner note for Follow, Poet:, "My generation, at its most positive and its most negative, seems to be desperate for something to believe in. So it shouldn't be surprising that we live in an age of extremes: an age of great advances and boundless acts of humanity but also one of debilitating plague and astonishing conflict...In both our poetic and diplomatic lives, I would argue for a broad return to a love for illustrious language. Poetry can give us a means to reach beyond the daily, confused present and touch something timeless and eternal. At a time when the search for meaning has never been more critical, it seems to me that a return to language, to a respect in the way we treat each other with and through language is the first step in solving some of the problems of human communication and understanding that are manifest in conflicts from the Middle East to the halls of the U.S. Congress to the unchecked vitriol sounding on ‘social' media. In times like ours, there is an imperative to use and value language more carefully and thoughtfully – a need to listen to and admire thoughtful language as part of our day-to-day lives. Our highest forms of linguistic expression are a defining element – and reflection of – our humanity."
The four-part Audenesque – which in ways echoes orchestral songs by the likes of Mahler, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and Marc Blitzstein – takes its inspiration from the works of W. H. Auden. The first three songs are settings of Auden's In Memory of W. B. Yeats, an elegy mourning the loss of a poetic giant at a time of global crisis. Some of the final lines inspired the album's title ("Follow, poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night / With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice"). Auden's poem inspired many subsequent works, including Joseph Brodsky's Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot. When Brodsky passed away on January 28, 1996 the anniversary of Yeats's death, Seamus Heaney declared the day "double-crossed and death-marched" and penned "Audenesque". The final song in Fairouz's cycle is a setting of Heaney's poem, a tribute to the 20th-century lineage of English-language poets. The work is "a conversation" through time and art among Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Brodsky and Heaney. The album also includes Paul Muldoon reading his friend Heaney's "Audenesque," as well as Auden's "To the Memory of W.B. Yeats
Based on the life of Egypt's late president Anwar Sadat, Fairouz's Sadat is a ballet in five scenes-the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the first encounter with Sadat's wife-to-be Jehan, the death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Sadat's arrival in Jerusalem, and finally Sadat's assassination. Each of these scenes gives a snapshot of Sadat's life, examining the relationship between this controversial figure and the tumultuous world he inhabited. Mr. Fairouz notes, "The moral in the life-story of this complex leader is as relevant now as it was at the start of his journey in 1952." On May 27 at Carnegie's Weill Hall, the Mimesis Ensemble will give the world premiere performance of Sadat.
The release of Follow, Poet as the inaugural album in the Return to Language series will be heralded by events featuring musical performances and poetry readings, with symposia, podcasts and UMC collaborations with artists and broadcasters. About this initial album and the series, Sobol says: "There are many different ways of enjoying music, of course, but I do hope that Follow, Poet – and each album that follows later in the series – sparks a deeper kind of listening experience for those who encounter it and, ultimately, a deeper sort of emotional response, because that's the whole point of art: to be inspired and moved, deeply."