"Compassion" is a major work of vocal and symphonic world music.
Austin Symphony earned a significant badge of honor three seasons ago when it gave the North American premiere of this seven-movement song cycle by Australians Nigel Westlake and Lior Attar. That debut won an Austin Critics Table Award for best symphonic performance.
The orchestra amplified that honor by racing "Compassion" back to the Long Center stage this season to the delirious response of Austin audiences.
But first, a little Mozart.
The Austin Symphony opened its concert on Friday with Mozart’s Overture to "La Clemenza di Tito" and his Symphony No. 36. The ensemble is now so accomplished at this end of the traditional repertoire that it’s hard to imagine an improvement to its well-reasoned, well-seasoned approach. Is there a more compelling interpretive angle still out there? I’m not aware of it.
Related: Why I adore the Austin Symphony
Clearly, the full crowd, fueled by students waiting in a long line for rush tickets, was here, however, for "Compassion." Sung in Hebrew and Arabic, the cycle grew out of Westlake’s grief over his son’s death. The accomplished film composer had discovered recordings by Israeli-born Lior Attar, known simply as Lior, among his son’s belongings. The two Australians collaborated on songs based on ancient texts with (translated) titles such as "Until the End of Time," "The Beauty Within" and "Who is Wise?"
Friday, Lior mesmerized the audience with his magnetic stillness and a hypnotic voice that highlighted the Middle Eastern echoes in a score that includes nods to East Asian, American minimalist and unfettered cinematic music. While his ghostly falsetto sent a chill down one’s spine, when Lior dropped into his lower register, the humanity of the lyrics tended to break through.
Conductor Peter Bay’s ensemble — these days unafraid of any challenge — made abounding sense of the score. The percussion, horn and woodwind sections shined especially, as the strings had done during the Mozart selections.
In the past, the Austin Symphony could be counted on as the most cautious of the city’s major arts groups. No longer. The sky’s the limit with this kind of programming.