22 April 2024

Canberra International Music Festival: Lior's songs of compassion just the tonic for troubled times

| Ian Bushnell
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Singer songwriter Lior

Singer songwriter Lior. Photo: Carlo Santone.

The Canberra International Music Festival could not have selected a more relevant or inspiring choice for its opening gala at the Snow Concert Hall on 1 May.

In a world sorely in need of compassion, singer-songwriter Lior will perform his award-winning titular song cycle. The collaboration with classical composer Nigel Westlake has captured the hearts of audiences in Australia and overseas ever since its triumphant debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House in 2013.

A series of seven songs set to ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts, Compassion carries a universal message that Lior says will never go out of fashion for as long as humanity continues to pursue violence over peace.

Israeli-born Lior is a product of Jewish and Arab heritage. And while the work’s message is in no way meant to be limited to that volatile setting, it carries extra resonance with the current situation in the Middle East.

Compassion was born out of tragic circumstances when Westlake’s son Eli was murdered in 2008, and Lior, whose album “Autumn Flow” was a favourite in the household, was asked to perform at a memorial concert the next year.

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At the end of his set, Lior performed a haunting Hebrew prayer, Avinu Melkeinu, acapella. The key text “Instil me with a greater sense of compassion so that I can be liberated” is at the heart of Compassion.

After the performance, Westlake and Lior met for the first time and decided to work on an orchestrated version of the prayer that resulted in a seven-minute work. When presented to the SSO, it was so impressed that a more expansive work was commissioned.

But Lior was adamant this extended work would not be specific to one religion or one culture.

“I wanted it to be an extension of this idea of compassion being a universal beautiful virtue that we should aspire to,” he told Region. “And so I arrived at this idea … maybe I can find a text in Arabic that says a similar thing and put it side by side.”

His friend Waleed Ali pointed him to an ancient Arabic proverb, and the pairing became the blueprint.

“And I thought, what if I uncover all these beautiful ancient texts from these two worlds,” Lior said.

A fluent Hebrew speaker, Lior baulked at singing in Arabic, believing an Arab singer should join the project, only to have Westlake insist on his single voice.

His Arabic speaking father also backed him to take on the challenge, reminding Lior that the language was part of his lineage too.

Nigel Westlake

Composer Nigel Westlake: sublime orchestration. Photo: Steve Forrest/Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

The result has been profound, from its premiere at the Opera House to about 30 performances in Australia and overseas.

Lior believes it’s a combination of Westlake’s sublime orchestration, the text and taking his own voice to new places.

“[After the Opera House performance] we were both saying to each other that it probably had the most striking resonance of any work that he or I had ever done respectively in our own careers, which is pretty remarkable given that most people don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Lior recalled.

“I wrote this for my voice and for me, so there’s a degree of authenticity and I really stretch out musically as well.

“This was a way for me to explore my range and the timbre of my voice. It has a great synergy musically between Nigel and myself and we both pushed ourselves and are really presenting the best of what we can do.

“Conceptually, even though people don’t understand it, they feel the passion with which we’re delivering these messages, and the richness and passion of the texts we’re transmitting.”

It took two years, working in and around other projects to complete Compassion. In that time, Lior and Westlake developed a firm friendship and unique way of working together.

“The collaboration between a classical composer and a singer songwriter in such a way is a pretty unorthodox one,” Lior said. “We just developed this way where we always stuck to our strengths, where Nigel’s orchestrating and I was looking after lyric and melody but bouncing ideas off each other and giving each other constructive feedback.

“We just found a really beautiful way of working together.”

The success of Compassion has led to a second collaboration just premiered at the Adelaide Festival. It tells the story of Indigenous activist William Cooper and involves Lou Bennett from folk trio Tiddas, who happens to be a descendent.

Lior calls it a natural follow and in the same spirit as Compassion.

He said Compassion invited people to tap into the best parts of themselves and highlighted that these two worlds that have had this incredibly tumultuous relationship over time also house these incredibly beautiful and wise messages about compassion.

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“That’s what we should be focussing on,” he said. “This message is always going to be relevant to people. People, I suppose shed the light of these messages on to what’s happening in the current climate, but I don’t think there’ll ever be a time where this message isn’t going to be relevant.

“So in that sense, it’s sort of easy because I can stand behind the messages in this work, no matter when.”

Asked if art could be healing, Lior responded: “Absolutely, that’s the reason why I do what I do … a message held in some of these texts is that compassion is the most important virtue we hold as humans and I think it is the one thing that defines us or that should define our humanity.

“It’s the thing that carries us beyond and above, to a higher kind of level of existence. We need to be reminded of that.”

To learn more and buy tickets visit the festival website.

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