Fairouz: In The Shadow Of No Towers; Glass: Concerto Fantasy / Popiel, University Of Kansas

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GLASS Concerto Fantasy for 2 timpanists and orchestra (arr. Lortz) 1. FAIROUZ Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers” 2 Paul W. Popeil, cond; 1 Ji Hye Jung, 1 Gwendolyn Burgett (timpani); 2 J?nis Porietis (tpt); University of Kansas Wind Ens NAXOS 8.573205 (57: 48)

The opening piece on this CD, Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for two timpanists and orchestra, is heard here in an arrangement for wind band by Mark Lortz, band director at Stevenson University in Maryland. The transcription, from what I can tell (not knowing the original), seems quite fine, crafted with an excellent ear for texture and style. The problem, as usual, is with Glass’s music itself. Although this piece is not as heavily repetitious as most of the composer’s famous works from the 1970s and 80s, it still relies on repetition to make its point, and in this case the “point” is hammered home by the incessant banging of our two timpanists, Jung and Burgett. Let me put it this way: if you really enjoy Benny Goodman’s old arrangement of Sing, Sing, Sing, with Gene Krupa’s interminable tom-tom banging, you’ll love this Concerto. Glass regales us at the outset with a motif that sounds for all the world like the opening of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme, interspersed with phrases from the Burt Bacharach song Promises, Promises. The second movement retreats from the sound barrier somewhat, but here the music sounded to me reminiscent of such iconic Glass works as Khayanaquatsi. Our two drummers recede somewhat from the sound barrier here, but the pattern they are drumming remains repetitious. The five-minute “cadenza” for the timpanists finally varies the beat a little, making some allusions to jazz, but not quite enough to hold the listener’s attention. (As comedian Stan Freberg once quipped on one of his records, “That’s close enough for jazz!”) Here, too, the timpanists are joined by xylophone for a real percussion funfest. In the third movement, the syncopation continues, but this time in typical Glassian style. Despite the use of some flatted thirds, this music reminded me of a section from Hydrogen Jukebox.

By contrast, Mohammed Fairouz’s Fourth Symphony, based on a “serious” comic book by Art Spiegelman bearing the title In the Shadow of No Towers, is a masterpiece (this is a world premiere recording). Fairouz has managed to capture the horror of the moment and its aftermath without wallowing in mawkish self-pity. Perhaps the liner notes’ descriptions of the four movements will convey to the reader the quality of the music. The first, titled “The New Normal,” shows a family’s interaction with television before, during, and after the events of September 11, 2001. Fairouz manages to suggest the twin towers collapsing by clashing rising woodwind scales with explosive brass chords, but before this Fairouz captures the feeling of unease with quiet music scored in close harmonics that often border on the eerie, and after their collapse returns to the opening material briefly before exploding again, then continuing in what the composer refers to as “a cold and quick funeral march.” The reader may feel from this verbal description that such a manipulation of musical material and emotional response seems calculated or even predictable, but such is not the case. This is damn fine and extremely creative music; not a single bar sounds formulaic, even if one is told and knows in advance what is “coming” in the music. Fairouz introduces themes that are sometimes developed and at other times juxtaposed with other themes; he keeps the listener off balance not with the sound explosions but with the silences in between.

The second movement, “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist,” is based on Spiegelman’s cartoon panels of a self-absorbed yuppie deciding how to comb his facial hair and turning into a rodent. It begins at a volume so low that at first I thought that my CD player had stopped working, with players scraping coins across suspended cymbals. The subcontra ranges of both brass and piano continue the gloomy mood. (Personal footnote: the day after 9/11, I went to work in shock, like everyone else in America. Talking to the young minister of a local church, I told her that what went through my mind was the plight of Olivier Messiaen and his fellow-prisoners during World War II, the four of them—all musicians—not knowing if they or the world would survive those horrible years, and Messiaen’s reaction by writing the Quartet for the End of Time. The minister’s reaction was a bit like the narcissist and his beard: “I just don’t know how to rock and roll any more!”) As annotator Paul R. Laird puts it, what emerges from this movement is not the yuppie’s narcissism but a very “heartfelt lament for those who died in the attack.”

The third movement, “One Nation Under Two Flags,” was Spiegelman’s reaction to the divisive split in America during the following years: the United “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” of America. In Fairouz’s score, neither one is really treated sympathetically. The Red Zone is represented by shrill jingoistic music, the Blue Zone by music that is “just plain angry.” (Art Spiegelman referred to it as “a martial schizo-scherzo.” I call it modern-day Charles Ives.) Once again, Fairouz keeps you guessing as to how the music will play out. A quiet passage for clarinets and soft solo trumpet over piano comes almost as a shock in the midst of the chaos.

The last movement, “Anniversaries,” is based on Spiegelman’s pictorial description of clocks that restarted on September 12 yet seemed to resemble a ticking “time-bomb that occasionally explodes,” after which the ghostly image of the twin towers grows larger than life before fading away. Here, Fairouz does indeed rely on the gimmick of a ticking clock sound as the underlying motif for the movement, but once again his inner ear for harmonic movement and sound color are astonishing. He almost makes of the wind ensemble something entirely different than what we are used to: the sounds that emerge sometimes resemble a harmonium, at other times an organ. It is the musical equivalent of the relentless march of time against a backdrop of horror brought, kicking and screaming, into our lives.

In praising the varied moods of the Fairouz Symphony, one must give special credit to the University of Kansas Woodwind Ensemble and their director, Paul Popeil. This is playing on an extraordinarily high level of a work that is technically and emotionally demanding from start to finish.

A split review, then. It almost seems unfair that so trivial a work as the Glass Concerto is paired on this disc with an incredible masterpiece. It’s rather like putting someone’s Variations on “Blue Suede Shoes” on the same disc with the Górecki Third Symphony. Yet I must urge you to acquire this disc for the Fairouz work. You simply won’t believe how brilliant it is.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8573205

  • UPC: 747313320578

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Mohammed Fairouz, Philip Glass

  • Conductor: Paul Popiel

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: University of Kansas Wind Ensemble