Sunday mornings are unfamiliar turf to me. Attending Coro Allegro’s and the United Parish in Brookline Chancel Choir’s premiere of Kareem Roustom’s oratorio, The Son of Man, under the leadership of David Hodgkins on the morning of Sunday, April 8, I was struck by the tension between religious service and concert. Commissioned by the United Parish in 2008, Sunday morning marked the world premiere of Roustom’s work. It repeats in a concert on Sunday, May 15, at the Church of the Covenant, Boston.
Roustom’s six settings of poems by Kahlil Gibran from his collection of poetry, Jesus, the Son of Man, are a supremely dramatic unfolding in six movements, reflections on the ministry of Christ from the perspective of five Biblical characters and finally, Gibran himself. Each movement prominently features a soloist as the central narrator, accompanied by chorus, organ, trumpet, harp, and percussion.
The works are not easy. Roustom’s piece is written in a musical language that’s a close cousin — almost obligatorily, given both works’ Middle-eastern influences to the asymmetric meters and tonal world — of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The ample challenges of the work were more than competently met by the chorus, whose attention to detail and diction made the printed version of the text in the program all but unnecessary. Accompanied movements held the chorus in bold delineation against the orchestral accompaniment, while the a capella fifth movement flourished in a well-balanced conception.
Soloists are at the heart of Roustom’s work: solos and soliloquy compel the drama. Particular emphasis is placed in the soprano part, in this case Elissa Alvarez, and that of the mezzo-soprano, Amy Oraftik, who not only introduce and close the work, but figure prominently into the narrative. David Kravitz, featured prominently in the John the Baptist movement, approached the work with a characteristically open sound and rich vibrato that, although deeply satisfying to hear, somehow underestimated the frenetic drama of Roustom’s accompaniment. Of particular note, however, was James DeSelms work in the second movement, centered around a tenor narrative. A smaller voice, DeSelms’s sound was nonetheless commanding and flexible, soaring in the higher registers with remarkable facility.
Yet the niggling question in the back of my mind: instead of a church service, isn’t this work better suited for a concert hall? As easy as it is to become swept up in Roustom’s vivid imagination and to fall in love with the dramatic narrative in his music, it was hard not to notice the small yet steady trickle of attendees leaving the church service. Despite the best intentions of the church, it seemed that some of the congregation did not appreciate the piece. Could it be that the work, centered on Gibran’s contemplation on Christ’s ministry, doesn’t allow room for personal reflection or contemplation? Nonetheless, Sunday morning’s premiere ended with a much-deserved standing ovation that somehow reinforced the performance, rather than religious, aspect of the work.
The piece is a successful collaboration between instrumental and choral ensembles with soloists, that can be heard at the concert performance next week in Boston.
Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.