When Lior performed at a memorial for composer Nigel Westlake’s son, it was the start of a beautiful relationship – both personal and professional.
“I’d never met Nigel before,” Lior told The AJN. “They had a copy of Autumn Flow, and he had a connection to the music, so he invited me to perform at the concert. It was a really emotional night, and at the end I chose to sing an a cappella version of Avinu Malkeinu, and spoke about its beautiful message of compassion. It had a real resonance with the audience, and with Nigel.”
Westlake’s son was killed in a road rage incident when he was just 21 years old. Westlake explained to the ABC that for 12 months, he was “locked in a state of pathological grief” but when he heard Lior sing Avinu Malkeinu, he “felt an awakening. An urge to be part of something bigger than myself”.
Following the concert, the duo met for the first time, with Westlake requesting to create an orchestral backing for the Jewish prayer. So Lior and Westlake began to work their magic together on a full orchestration, and suddenly the stage was set.
Explaining that he had only ever sung the hymn a cappella, Lior said the grand orchestration of the piece was poignant, especially as the pair realised that it had the potential to become something much bigger than originally envisaged.
And they were right.
When their idea was presented to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, rather than a short work, they were offered a full commission. Conceptually, Lior explained, it grew from there.
Compassion weaves together ancient Hebrew and Arabic poems, proverbs and texts that all deal with compassion, healing and beauty. It was a conscious choice for Lior to use the two ancient cultures.
“Initially, I thought I’d explore and find other Hebrew texts, but it would be hard to make it not a religious or mono-cultural presentation,” Lior recalled. “There’s that beautiful line [in Avinu Malkeinu] ‘instil me with compassion so I can be liberated’, and to me, that’s not just a Jewish thing, that’s a beautiful universal message. And so, I wanted to use that as the seed and to try and present universality within this piece, not just you know, something that’s essentially exclusively Jewish.”
The idea behind the composition is that despite the differences between cultures, at the end of the day, most are similar in the ideas they hold around compassion and how to treat others.
As Lior explained, the pair wanted to create something that felt sacred and timeless, saying a lot of their musical decisions intentionally avoided using culturally specific musical choices.
“We wanted to really draw on our strengths. So, Nigel’s is orchestrating for a Western conventional symphony orchestra. Mine is composing melody and lyrics. So, we just drew on our strengths and tried to put something together that would resonate with people in a beautiful and sacred kind of way, but without placing it in any sort of pigeonholed cultural kind of world.”
The texts used in Compassion are largely a collection of poems, proverbs and songs drawn from Judaism and Islam that give an insight into the main tenets of compassion. Their similarities are immense, their universality undeniable, and their message profoundly pertinent in a world struggling with divisiveness.
The response to Compassion’s world premiere, which took place at the Sydney Opera House, was extraordinary. It was recorded and released on ABC and the recording spent more than 10 weeks at the top of the ARIA Classical Charts, as well as the Classical/Crossover Charts.
So clearly, the music and the message behind it resonated with the public.
While Lior and Westlake believed wholeheartedly that the piece would be appreciated and well-liked by audiences, they didn’t quite expect the reaction they received.
“On the night of the premiere with the Sydney Symphony, both Nigel and I were blown away, and we both said that neither of us had ever experienced any kind of reaction or resonance like that, in anything that we had done in our respective careers,” Lior told The Guardian ahead of their next performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
The singer can’t seem to put his finger on why the piece has such a huge appeal, but, as The Guardian reported, he does have a few theories.
“There is a certain timelessness to the music. A massive part of it is Nigel’s orchestration, which is truly remarkable. I think also there is a certain sacredness in the words that come through. And I think the fact that people don’t understand the words, but feel them. It gives the right amount of freedom for people to ruminate on the messages and the themes and the beauty, as well, without it being overly literal. I think there is a power in that as well,” Lior said.
When The AJN asked what compassion meant to him, Lior didn’t hesitate.
“I think compassion is the central trait that makes us humans. And I think it’s the most important and beautiful trait that we have as human beings. It’s what defines us.”
Lior and Nigel Westlake will perform Compassion with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House, November 4 and 5. For tickets, visit sydneysymphony.com