Live Reviews: Marie Keyrouz and her Vocal Ensemble of Peace

Live Reviews: Marie Keyrouz and her Vocal Ensemble of Peace

St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick 15 November 2007.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

15 November 2007

There are rare moments when one is transported far from the loud buzz of now and flung helplessly and totally into another age. Once there, and with perhaps some discomfort, one catches a glimpse of history, its former power, its alien nature and is simultaneously elated by its grace and dismayed by its loss. This sensation, more then just a conscious observation, comes unannounced, sparked perhaps by the delicate arrangement of levers in an instrument centuries old or the silence of a Grecian temple. And one doesn’t just find this in museums or ancient cities. The experience is most real and tangible in the performances of music, dance and ritual, which keep the traditions and history of our increasingly commercialised world alive.

Sister Marie Keyrouz is a custodian of such traditions, a Melkite nun born in the Lebanon and raised in the Maronite Church. Since her debut album Chant byzantin in 1989, she has captivated listeners by her mastery of an ancient Christian vocal tradition. This extraordinarily oriental repertoire dates back to the fourth century and represents both the origins of Christian liturgical song as well as its current outer reaches. She performs in a number of configurations, but it is with her a cappella Arabic male choir, the Ensemble de la Paix, that she has built her reputation and with whom she performed at this year’s Sionna Festival.

The venue, St Mary’s Cathedral, was not just a wonderful acoustic space, but with its crumbling walls and heavy brass candelabra it presented an event with a strangely eastern quality. The programme consisted of hymns from four eastern churches – Byzantine, Melkite, Arameen and Maronite. Of these, the Maronite Syriac chant is the oldest. Handed down orally since the first centuries of Christianity, it presented the most ascetic and reserved music here. In contrast, some of the more contemporary works based on Byzantine themes involved long sections of solo improvisations which showcased the virtuosity that has made Sister Keyrouz a star.

One of the most fascinating and revealing aspects of this concert was the employment of microtonality and ancient modes such as the Pythagorean diatonism found in some of the works from the Melkite tradition. These pitch relationships are wonderfully refreshing and inspiring but their accurate production is difficult even for a specialist ensemble such as this. Here the Ensemble de la Paix seemed at times hesitant and less secure with these constantly fluctuating pitch centres although a likely cause is that on this occasion two of its seven members were unable to perform.

In contrast, any appraisal of the mastery and freedom of voice embodied by Sister Keyrouz should not overlook the religious conviction that she brings to her performance. It is rare to be offered such ancient musical insights, but Sister Keyrouz goes one step further and invites you to share in her belief and her prayer. As the saying goes – sing and you pray twice.

Published on 1 January 2008

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