David Warrack is writing an oratorio on the life of Abraham, the Biblical patriarch. I’m thrilled to be participating in a concert presentation of excerpts. We’ve had some rehearsals, with about a week to go until the concert at Metropolitan United Church on September 23rd .
Warrack explains the context this way:
Abraham sits at the base of three great religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with intriguing connections to other faiths as well. This oratorio tells the story of this historic figure, but also uses the opportunity to ask why we cannot work together when we all come from the same place. Based in history, and believing in the essential goodness of man, the message of this work is that by reaching out, we can find solutions.
The project is much more than music & words, but an excuse for interfaith dialogue. The composer wants to get a conversation going, so it’s no wonder that the work concerns communication and debate.
Here’s the plan for the next couple of years:
- Preliminary presentation of 4 selections at Metropolitan United Church on September 23rd with appearances by Moshe Hammer & Jackie Richardson, as part of an interfaith conference.
- 3 performances in early 2014 in a church, a synagogue, and a mosque, with 5 soloists, a small combined choir, a chamber ensemble, and organ
- Full performance at Massey Hall or the Sony Centre in the 2014/2015 season
Warrack’s plan is as much about religion as it is about art. It’s delicate.
Delicate? Some people don’t care who they offend. For instance. I’m reminded of a moment in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. The Jews in Herod’s court have heard that the captive John the Baptist has supposedly seen God, leading to a debate about the nature of God. It’s very dramatic, and undignified, as the music seems to mock them and their intense faith. Some call this scene anti-Semitic.
Faith & religion are a delicate matter! Now imagine the delicacy of Warrack’s task, in seeking to present something that can be shown to three faith communities, not only without giving offense, but in hopes of sparking dialogue.
I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this presentation of excerpts of the work on the occasion of the interfaith conference. And so it seems that the oratorio probes and enacts the interfaith question, as though the oratorio itself were an inter-faith conference. But in another sense the oratorio is meta-faith or pre-faith, asking some fundamental questions about our natures and how we approach such questions, both within and outside our faith communities.
Warrack’s music is predominantly tonal, very chromatic, and not at all like his usual music-theatre idiom nor his jazz music. The chorus we were working on today is precisely the opposite of what Strauss wrote, because it dignifies everyone involved. At times we’re asked to sing dissonant music; there’s one place where I sing with another tenor a semi-tone away, while another place the basses are a major seventh away. At times we’re echoing phrases from other vocal parts a beat or two later. It’s a dense web, but each of us with conviction whether we arrive at discord or harmony.
It’s new. There’s something magical in bringing a new piece into the world, particularly when it’s not derivative. There are passages whose complex textures remind me of Paul Hindemith, one passage that suggests Frank Zappa, and yes, there are places where the disciplined modernist Warrack becomes the romantic Warrack. The ambiguous harmonies and extended chords lead us (the choristers) a merry chase. Our adventures in tonality are a perfect parallel to the discussion.
The first excerpts of David Warrack’s oratorio on Abraham will be presented September 23rd at Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St East.