Strife between the Arabs and Israelis has been the center of adversity in the Middle East for over half a century now. The cataclysmic wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 have scarred and shaped Israel and the Arab World. It's easy to forget that the 65-year-old conflict amounts to a blip in our shared history. After all, Arabs and Jews have lived together for thousands of years. We have developed a shared history and culture in the region. Our languages have cross-pollinated and, just as Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and the many other languages of the Middle East exhibit a common DNA, we have developed a united mythology and set of traditions.
This was all on display with the West-Coast premiere of Poems and Prayers, my third symphony. The approximately 300 performers of the UCLA Philharmonia, UCLA Chorale and UCLA University Chorus (the two choirs immaculately prepared by Donald Neuen and Rebecca Lord) under the brilliant baton of Neal Stulberg joined forces with some of the most prominent vocal and instrumental soloists in the world, including Sasha Cooke, David Krakauer and David Kravitz. Together they crowded the stage of Royce Hall, one of America's great concert venues, to present Poems and Prayers to a Los Angeles audience for the first time. The event was exciting for musical reasons alone but there was more than music at work here.
The texts of the symphony range from the ancient Aramaic Kaddish to the modern poetry of the Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan while the final movement of the symphony is a setting of a poem that is central to Israeli society: Memorial Day for the War Dead by Yehuda Amichai, Israel's late poet-laureate. I set the intimidating and magnificent poem in 2010, encouraged by Hana Amichai, Yehuda's widow. The Mahmoud Darwish setting is a poem about a mother singing a lullaby to her dead son. Sasha Cooke and David Krakauer captured the spirit of the dark poetry beautifully while Fadwa Tuqan's poem was punctuated eloquently by Nicole Sauder's plaintive interpretation of my violin solos.
The symphony is accented by the Oseh Shalom, a Hebew section of the Kaddish that calls for peace for the entire tribe of Israel. It is not until the very end of the symphony that the chorus adds the relatively new reform lines to the Oseh Shalom ("v'al kol yosh vey tevel") expanding the prayer of peace to all the nations of the world rather than just the tribe. The chorus pulsated with a quiet, ringing forgiveness that filled the concert hall with peace.
With our shared musical and linguistic DNA, it is no coincidence that David Krakauer, with the legacy of Klezmer music running through his veins, took so naturally to my Arabic-inflected setting of Mahmoud Darwish. Nor is it a coincidence that the star violinist Rachel Barton Pine was met with such enthusiastic emotion when she performed my Egyptian and Armenian-themed violin sonata, Native Informant , in Israel just as another American violinist, Michael Dabroski, prepared to perform the same work at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Back in Los Angeles, a few days before the performance of Poems and Prayers, the shared legacies of the Arabs and Jews were underlined yet again at the UCLA Hillel where I sat side by side with Rabbi Chaim. In the past, the Rabbi had helped me parse the text of the Kol Nidrei as I was composing a setting for the Israeli cellist Maya Beiser. At the Hillel, aptly named for the great Yitzhak Rabin, we spoke about our shared history, mythology, traditions and (importantly) food. We read the Mourners Kaddish for Nelson Mandela and then we heard the story of Jacob, so familiar to the Jews, Muslims and Christians of the Middle East.
One of the most powerful things we Arabs and Jews have in common is the fact that we grow up with so many of the same stories. As a kid, I was always so touched by the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt. He forgives and embraces his brothers who left him to die and reunites with his family. In the last few minutes of my symphony, as I heard the voices of all our young performers intoning the words of universal peace, I felt the forgiveness of Joseph fill the concert hall with the promise of a better and worthier future.
Poems and Prayers will be released by Grammy Award-winning label Sono Luminus in a CD / Pure Audio Blu-Ray combo pack in May of 2014.