IN: Reviews

Church Premiere for Roustom’s Son of Man


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.



8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was privileged to sing in the Roustom premiere on May 8, as a member of both United Parish Chancel Choir and Coro Allegro. “The Son of Man” is a piece that has required extensive preparation (especially for an unauditioned church choir), and unusual flexibility on the part of both directors. This successful collaboration between a gay secular chorus and a church choir is a notable accomplishment in and of itself.
    An important aspect of the May 8 premiere was the skillful introduction of this music to the congregation over the previous 2 months, by choir director Susan DeSelms. She organized 4 lectures on Kahlil Gibran’s poetry and Kareem Roustom’s music in March and April, and integrated excerpts of the text and music into the winter and spring services. This congregation was very well prepared (and eager) to hear this mystical oratorio as the worship service on Sunday. Susan is to be congratulated for her vision in commissioning Kareem to write for the UP community, and then to expand the community by including Coro Allegro once she saw the magnitude of the piece.

    Comment by Julie Anderson — May 10, 2011 at 11:58 pm

  2. As a parishioner of the United Parish, I must respond to say that the commissioning of Kareem Roustom’s The Son of Man by Susan DeSelms and our Chancel Choir culminated in a moving and uplifting service of worship and music on Sunday May 8th. Mr. Agarwala’s “niggling question” regarding a “small yet steady” number of people leaving the service brings undue attention to a constant reality of any urban parish: there is always movement and fluidity within the worship service. Far better to take note of the immediate and heartfelt standing ovation which greeted this music and its performance. On a spring Sunday in America, Mr. Roustom’s deep and cross-cultural synthesis of words and music provided a powerful experience for anyone thinking about and praying for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and throughout the world. What better place for probing and thought-provoking music than a church?

    Comment by Shiela Kibbe — May 11, 2011 at 8:47 am

  3. As the Senior Pastor of The United Parish in Brookline and the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not appropriate worship, I want to weigh in on the discussion. We intentionally did not try to somehow integrate this amazing piece into a traditional worship service. This congregation is committed to being a church that ministers to a world that has changed radically. We are open to new forms of worship and to people who are looking for religious services that speak to their deep desire to encounter the spiritual in the midst of the ordinary. Roustom’s music and Gibran’s moving poetry speak for themselves about the holy. Our worship that day was meant to be worship through worship, a sermon in song. Our congregation was well-prepared for the experience, having heard the poetry in previous services and having had the opportunity to learn about the music in a series of programs. If people came that day looking for our usual type of service they may have been disappointed. If they came to discover a vibrant church community that worships in a wide variety of ways, they have found a treasure in The United Parish in Brookline.

    Comment by The Rev. Patricia Coughlin — May 11, 2011 at 11:41 am

  4. Having literally grown up in the United Parish, I have experienced the many different ways that worship is celebrated over the years. Since I have moved away from Brookline, I visit now and then on occasion, and I was happy that this past Sunday was one of those occasions. It was a powerful, complicated work that required those in the congregation to engage and participate mentally and emotionally. Hearing the composers comments prior to the service was especially engaging since it brought some background and context for what we experienced. It was perhaps not a usual service, but it was the usual kind of worship that the UP has embraced over its many years – interesting, challenging, musical and spiritually rich.

    Comment by R. Brown — May 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  5. The idea of imposing these sorts categorical boxes on the performance versus the church service strikes me as the preoccupation of an inorganic conception of the relationship between Art, Religion and Humanity.

    Comment by C. Brown — May 11, 2011 at 11:45 pm

  6. Let me add that this wonderful work is also a tour de force: it adapts an extremely difficult musical tradition (the correct term, strange to say, is “Oriental,” not “Middle Eastern” or “Arabic”)to the European classical tradition. Ears trained in the latter are sure to be challenged by Oriental music’s very different rhythms and meters, its semi-tones, quavers, and modes. One of the great triumphs of this arresting piece is that it successfully melds the two traditions. Moreover, it is an act of love, peace, and courage to perform poetry by a Lebanese-American author in music written by a Syrian-American composer while the US continues its endless Middle East and South Asia wars and domestic prejudices mount against all things “Arab.”

    Comment by Ellen Cantarow — May 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  7. Sunday mornings are unfamiliar turf to me. Attending Coro Allegro

    Comment by gillian88 — May 31, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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