Lior, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Nigel Westlake composer and conductor
Classical, Contemporary, World
ABC Classics 4810678,
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

There have been odd times with Nigel Westlake’s works where I have sensed that he has held his ‘soul-laid-bare’ card close to his chest. With Compassion, however, that card is on the table – in spades.

Compassion is a series of seven melodies, all but one written with the Israeli-born Melbourne inhabitant Lior, whose body of work crosses a spectrum of genres. Westlake, also a master across styles as both performer and composer, has ably developed the melodies and orchestral surrounds for the seven pieces. Called a ‘song cycle’ it is, in essence, a symphony of songs. The pieces draw on both Hebrew and Arabic texts, all ancient offerings and, of course, compassion, this most cherished state of being, is revealed to be a persistent contemplation of writers, philosophers and prophets across political and religious divides. This is the point. From the comprehensive notes included with the CD, compassion would seem to require an element of wisdom. Wisdom often comes from experience.


Lior sings, Nigel Westlake conducts the Sydney Symphony. Photo by Asaf Luft

The project emanates from an event held by Westlake to raise funds for his Smugglers of Light Foundation. The organisation’s mission is to assist indigenous youth in their quest for a voice, a much louder voice in the Australian musical and arts landscape through the provision of music education and storytelling opportunities. It was because of the death of Westlake’s son, Eli, killed deliberately in a senseless act, that Lior was asked to perform at the event, as Eli had loved Lior’s music. Those present were so overwhelmed with the beauty of Lior’s rendition of the traditional Jewish piece “Avinu Malkeinu” (Hymn of Compassion) sung a cappella, that Westlake asked if he might write an accompaniment for it. From there the project grew.

It is simplistic to think that retribution will more quickly ease the burden of grief, but many still vainly seek this path. To come instead, to such a point of musical burgeoning that one can turn grief into an energy for reconciliation takes both wisdom and immense compassion. Both of these faculties glow through this entire work.

Lior has provided fragments and whole melodies as springboards for Westlake. He also consulted many in both the Arabic and Jewish communities in choosing the texts for the project. They are stunning melodies stretching the singer’s three octave range to the limit from the ethereal high notes in the solemnly arresting opening piece, “Sim Shalom” (Grant Peace) to the vocal depths of the haunting “Inna Rifqa” (The Beauty Within). Lior is no stranger to good arrangements in his solo ventures and one imagines a shared embracing of each other’s work. He often visits the theme of collaboration in his song-writing so this project must be especially dear to him.

Years ago, Westlake kindly provided me with a DAT tape of himself conducting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his Concert Suite from ‘Babe’. I treasure it. The performance is so much better than the soundtrack which he did not conduct. This makes sense.  A composer knows precisely the sound he wishes to achieve. On this album with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the technical precision, particularly of the highly percussive sections, the lyricism of the mellifluous passages and the emotive carriage throughout, is beautifully sculpted under his baton. In performance the obvious warmth and respect shared with Lior is illuminating.

Compassion requires a massive orchestral presence. The vast percussion section is used to such fabulous effect and other Westlake favourites in the celeste and harp are thoughtfully employed, for example in the lullaby-like “La Yu’minu” (Until You Love Your Brother). Indeed the musically accessible orchestration has been intricately woven to enhance the melodies. The choice of combined instruments providing unusual textures such as harp and vibraphone, is refreshingly indicative of the album’s message. There is great detail in Westlake’s writing, for example in the highly rhythmic encounter, “Eize Hu Chacham?” (Who is Wise?), but the sensitive renderings never obscure the revelations of the texts. In this song, Westlake’s use of a recurring gravitational pull from low to high and the employment of a range of percussion counterpoints the strong call to unity of the melody and lyrics. The equally rhythmically syncopated “Al Takshu L’vavchem” (Don’t Harden Your Hearts) and “Ma Wadani Ahadun” (Until the End of Time) have amazing energy and explore the depths and heights of Lior’s voice and expressive control with their final crescendos.

The first and last songs in the cycle hinge the others together both musically and textually in that compassion is essential for peace. The orchestration connects them too. One of the features of the project has been the capacity of both composers to retain their individual musical identities. There are no clichéd ventures into Arabic or Jewish musical idioms except for the originator of this project, “Avinu Malkeinu” which is written in the gorgeously evocative double harmonic major – a scale found right across the Middle East and into the Mediterranean and used in everything from funeral chants to political evocations. In his accompaniment, Westlake has managed to avoid the expected and his modulations serve to enhance, rather than overplay this extraordinary song. His signature violin counter-melodic sequences subtly play out in the background as in the first piece. Lior shapes every sound, every word, with utter reverence.

The symbolism combining diverse composers exploring the heritage of diverse cultures, instruments and instrumentalists, all coming together in a tightly-woven musical tapestry is never lost on the listener. It is a heart-wrenching album in the most exquisite way. May many hear this united voice.

View:  Natasha Pincus produced two Lior tracks viewable here with a discussion of the making of the elaborate “I’ll Forget You”. Live performance of “Avina Malkeinu” by Lior, Westlake and the SSO.


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