Foundation for Modern Music Premiere

Akhenaten soars with Mohammed Fairouz's throbbing grooves & distinct cultural interpretation

Akhenaten soars with Mohammed Fairouz's throbbing grooves & distinct cultural interpretation

If Superman soared east past Michael Daugherty's Oh, Lois! from his Metropolis Symphony, he would surely find himself in the musical world of Mohammed Fairouz's Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth with the flexatone replaced by the Middle Eastern darbuka

Think relentless and tireless uneven metrics within a common time framework, breathless rhythms and a shrieking piccolo that surges faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive intensifying en route to a climactic whip. The throbbing grooves suck you in; the thunderous textures don't let go.

As an audience member, I couldn't help breaking a sweat. The work dangerously verges on the fringe of lusty turbo flash. But with ample inventiveness that hint at Fairouz's thoughtful craftsmanship, his Akhenaten will be heard as often as the composer's popular vocal works.

 ​It's often said that one of the risks of globalization is the assimilation of a rainbow of cultural identities into a single homogenous, jejune voice. For Houston, such implosion would be a calamity.

That Akhenaten's debut wasn't presented with choreography was the only regret. After all, it was conceived as a ballet akin to Copland's Appalachian Spring. I imagined the kind of movement language Stanton Welch, Dominic Walsh or Karen Stokes would dream up for such a thrusting sketch. 

The world premiere of Akhenaten at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was the Arab-American composer's first in Houston. It's pertinent that Foundation for Modern Music commissioned the work and devoted a playbill to his opus consisting of the Chorale Fantasy for string quartet, The Poet Declares his Renown for string quartet and baritone and States of Fantasy double concerto for violin and cello.

As the company celebrates its 25th birthday, artistic director Raúl Orlando Edwards' focus has shifted to tune into music and people that translate Houston's ethos.

It's often said that one of the risks of globalization is the assimilation of a rainbow of cultural identities into a single homogenous, jejune voice. For Houston, whose value is entrenched in its demographic multiplicity, such implosion would be a calamity.

New York-born Fairouz may be a child of the cosmopolitan Internet age: His music synthesizes minimalism, hard rock, jazz and jazz hands, musical theater, avant-garde and ethno-folk styles. But he does so in such a way that diverse creative impulses coexist and keep their individual distinct character. 

Written with cellist Adaiha Macadam-Somer and pianist Paul Boyd in mind, Akhenaten unfolds as a double concerto with allusions to the 1985 novel of the same name by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Although not a programmatic translation of the text, Fairouz encapsulates the narrative's principal struggle: Convention facing change as a parley between the High Priest of Amun and Nefertiti, the pharaoh's royal wife. 

Fairouz sets the two conflicting dramatis personae in the solo instruments and pits one against the other. What begins as a rigid dialogue evolves into all out urban warfare with a nod to Philip Glass's operatic setting of Akhenaten, during which incessant arpeggiated broken chords vie for attention.

 Fairouz encapsulates the narrative's principal struggle: Convention facing change as a parley between the High Priest of Amun and Nefertiti, the pharaoh's royal wife. 

Adaiha Macadam-Somer's effusive treatment of vocal-like passages lept off the page and cut through thick virile textures while keeping a regal affect. With percussive accuracy, Boyd's muscly reading punished whomever or whatever stood in his way. It was up to conductor Clifton Evans to mitigate between them and the newly formed Houston Composers Orchestra.

Akhenaten followed States of Fantasy when sisters Batya Macadam-Somer and Adaiha Macadam-Somer tore up the five-movement showcase.

That's what transpired in the double cadenza during which the duo exploited the instruments' singing abilities and juxtaposed virtuosic dexterity. 

The violin-cello conversation matures through well defined counterpoint, fugues and palindrome melodic lines. An ominous coupling of low-tessitura bassoons and basses introduces polyphonic textures that taste of Mahlerian grandeur. States of Fantasy ends big, just like a speeding Mack Truck that can't be stopped. 

In Chorale Fantasy — where a frozen chord bowed on open strings breathes repose in the outro — and The Poet Declares his Renown, the composer's fondness for counterpoint, gentle dissonance, perfect intervals and whispers of non-specific eastern folk zeitgeist diverge away into nomadic tangents. As if amid a tête-à-tête, the intimate vocals of baritone Marcus DeLoach subsumed gravity into the world of 20th-century Argentinean poet, Jorge Luis Borges, whose text Fairouz supported with an intense foundation.  

An unexpected appearance by the third Macadam-Somer sister, Eden, set the program in motion with her own oeuvres mused by 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi. Equally comfortable singing pure, wholesome folk airs and frolicking around the fiddle at the same time, Eden Macadam-Somer pioneers a genre of honest and bewitching musical coalescence.

The concert was quite the Houston welcome for Fairouz. Dismiss any ideas of a southern genteel debutante entrance. The Foundation for Modern Music's event was an involved intervention on the city's classical music scene. Houston will see more of Fairouz in the near future.

Foundation Modern Music
Written with cellist Adaiha Macadam-Somer and pianist Paul Boyd in mind, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth unfolds as a double concerto with allusions to the 1985 novel of the same name by Naguib Mahfouz.
Mohammed Fairouz
Although not a programmatic translation of the text, composer Mohammed Fairouz encapsulates the narrative's principal struggle: Convention facing change as a parley between two characters.