On July 12, 2017, conductor Fawzi Haimor led the Grant Park Orchestra in a tour-de-force program, which included the Midwest premiere of Syrian-born composer Kareem Roustom‘s Ramal. The performance was met with widespread enthusiasm from critics, both for the Grant Park Orchestra’s performance under Haimor’s leadership and for Roustom’s music.
John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune was pleased to see “gifted Arab-American classical musicians get [the] forum they deserve.” He writes, “For many Muslim and Arab classical musicians living in the West, it is important to come forward and express their identity. Some have chosen to make political statements through their music, as composers throughout the centuries have done. Others have chosen to draw wider attention to the enormously rich musical tradition of Islam. Others simply write their music. Whatever the case, there are major voices here needing to be heard. The Grant Park Music Festival provided a rare forum for two such musicians… The Chicago-born conductor Fawzi Haimor… and Damascus-born composer Kareem Roustom.”
Von Rhein goes on to applaude Ramal: “Structurally, Ramal is informed by the poetic meters of pre-Islamic Arabic verse, pushing forward in irregular patterns across a tonally centered canvas for large orchestra. While not programmatic, the 12-minute opus has a subtext of strife, an unsettled tone that speaks to the devastating civil war now racking the composer’s homeland. The music, he told me, represents his angry and appalled reaction to the violence that has displaced members of his family.
It’s a most powerful piece that works perfectly well when heard as pure music, divorced from its political associations. Nor does it attempt a fusion of Arab and Western modes: I was unable to detect much of the former, but I did catch suggestions of Benjamin Britten in his glowering, Sinfonia da Requiem manner. The opening onrush of protesting brasses over roiling strings settles into a series of contrasting episodes tied together with canny craftsmanship and gut-level force.”
The review in the Chicago Classical Review, written by Lawrence A. Johnson, focused primarily on Fawzi Haimor’s skill and technique as a conductor. However, Johnson did reflect on his impressions of Kareem Roustom‘s Ramal.
“Haimor opened the evening with Ramal by Kareem Roustom. The title of this 2014 work refers to one of the three meters of ancient Arabic poetry. Though Ramal has no direct program,Roustom says, the current state of the world and the ongoing devastation in his native Syria clearly had some influence.
Ramal is launched with a series of violent metallic chords and the 12-minute work is characterized by a nervous driving energy. There are fleeting respites with a brief lyrical section and an elegiac passage for solo violin evoking a mournful Middle Eastern flavor. Yet a restless agitation dominates with the ceaseless tempo fluctuations seeming to reflect the unsettled religio-political strife of his homeland.
This is strong, defiant music, crafted with skill and scored with confidence. Haimor–himself of Lebanese-Jordanian background–led the Grant Park musicians in a committed and muscular performance with concertmaster Jeremy Black contributing an evocative violin solo. The Syrian-American composer was on hand to share in the enthusiastic applause.”