ANCIENT HEBREW AND ARABIC TEXTS HAVE PROVIDED THE INSPIRATION FOR A NEW SOUL-STIRRING
Sad events led to a musical bond which ultimately has resulted in a profoundly moving new orchestral collaboration between chart-topping Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter Lior and acclaimed classical composer Nigel Westlake. “It arose from tragic circumstances, really,’’ says Lior, who will perform the work, Compassion, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra next month. “Nigel lost a son five years ago.’’ In June 2008, Westlake’s son Eli was struck by a car and killed. “A year after his son passed away, he was with a group of friends and one of my albums came on. He was telling one of these friends that this album was much loved by his late son Eli,’’ Lior says.
“The mutual friend said ‘Lior is actually a cousin of mine’ and following that Nigel invited me to perform at a memorial concert for Eli, which was also timed with the launch of a charity foundation.
“At the end of my performance, I chose to finish with an a cappella Hebrew hymn, called Avinu Malkeinu, which speaks about the attaining of compassion and houses a very beautiful, universal message.’’
Lior’s fans who attended his Valentine’s Day picnic concert with the ASO at the Botanic Garden in 2009 may remember that he also closed that show with the same hymn, offered then for victims of the Victorian bushfires. “It’s a hymn that I’ve sung over the years and I tend to finish special gigs with it – usually it’s a spur of the moment thing,’’ he says.
It was not until after Eli’s memorial concert that Lior really met Westlake for the first time. “The hymn seemed to have a profound effect on the audience and Nigel and I entertained the idea of writing a full orchestral arrangement to it, in stark contrast to the a cappella way that I had done it,’’ he says.
“From there, the seed grew. We initially thought that we would create a short arrangement and present it to the Sydney Symphony … they loved the idea and actually offered us a commission to write a full work.’’ The full 45-minute piece – which was premiered recently by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and has just been released on CD – is based on both Hebrew and Arabic ancient texts.
Lior, whose surname is Attar, was born in Israel’s fourth-largest city Rishon LeZion in 1976 and moved with his family to Sydney at age 10. He says the texts talk about compassion in a poetic and humanitarian way. “It’s not and was never meant to be a religious presentation but rather is drawing from two ancient cultures which have had such a tumultuous history, uncovering these beautiful texts, writing melodies to them and orchestrating them,’’ he says.
Lior is delighted to be returning to perform the work with the ASO, which was the first orchestra he ever sang with as part of the Australia Plays Broadway concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2009. The following month, he played his first full-length orchestral show with the ASO at Botanic Garden, which he fondly remembers as a transformative experience.
His return concert with Westlake will be divided into two parts. The first half, entitled Leaving The Western Shadows, spans pieces from Lior’s first three albums, along with some new songs from his next solo offering which is due out in March. “Most of them have new orchestral arrangements which were drawn up by a range of composers – Benjamin Northey being one of them, Iain Grandage as well, and Nigel Westlake also drew up a couple,’’ he says.
Lior says his fans will find common threads between Compassion, which comprises the second half of the program, and his previous works. “With a lot of my own songs I’ve subtly infused traces of my own heritage, particularly through the vocal inflections and things like Bedouin Song. There’s a certain spirituality that I tap into just personally through my own music, and this really is an extension of that,’’ he says.
While the collaboration slowed progress on his own fourth album, Lior says it also has benefited from the experience. “I can look back and there’s a very clear progression and richness to my own musical vocabulary and repertoire that working with Nigel has given me, and I think that’s actually fed into the album in a great way,’’ he says. Lior & Westlake perform Leaving the Western Shadows and Compassion with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at the Festival Theatre on February 7