Cecilia McDowall: The Girl from Aleppo (CR054)
Review by Henry Fogel, Fanfare
It is important to point out up front that the duration of 19:21 in the headnote is not a typo. The CD is available from Amazon for $6.99 (as I write this in mid-June). It is also available from Convivium and other sites for streaming and download purposes.
The remarkable story of Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy who taught herself English by watching American television in her home in Aleppo, Syria and who then, at 16, travelled over 3,500 miles to Germany by having her wheelchair pushed by her sister, has become an international sensation. Nujeen worked with journalist Christina Lamb to write her story, The Girl from Aleppo, which has become an international best-seller.
Kevin Crossley-Holland, an author of children’s books, and composer Cecilia McDowall collaborated on this cantata. They have avoided the temptation to create something overly melodramatic, though the story could easily have led to that approach. Scored for children’s choir, violin, and piano, the music’s sparse textures underline the terror experienced by Syrian refugees driven from their homes by war. The music has what the composer describes as “a quasi-Middle Eastern sound world.”
The first movement, “Orphans of the World,” is filled with longing and loneliness. The second, “The Journey (Thousands Milling at the Border)” conveys the chaos and desperate energy of refugees trying to get out. What McDowall calls “body percussion” reflects the intensity of the drama that these people were living: “We sold heirlooms. Family homes. One man said he sold his kidney.” Next comes “I’d never seen the sea before,” a movement with a lovely lyrical line from the violin soloist. The music here is characterized by a gentle rocking motion. The fourth movement, “A lost tribe pushed from border to border,” follows without pause and ratchets up the drama as it describes Nujeen’s sister, Nasrine, relentlessly pushing the wheelchair, going through country after country until arriving at Germany, where “The policeman smiled, ‘Wilkommen! Welcome to Germany!” The hopeful and lovely finale, “Everyday Wonders,” reflects a new life for Nujeen.
The score opens and closes with a chorale, modified in its second appearance at the end. The moving text reads “This wreath of words is what we have, and flowers of song all we can give. Singing sorrow but singing tomorrow. Singing the song of life itself.” The closing text is “This wreath of words is our choice, these flowers of song, they are our voice. Singing sorrow, singing tomorrow, singing the song of life itself.” Somehow, confronting all that this girl has gone through, her courage and her sense of hope are the qualities that come through.
The performance is deeply felt and very well sung by the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain, a group consisting of singers between the ages of 9 and 19. The choir worked with the composer in preparing the world premiere performance, given on August 10, 2018. The recording was made almost a year later (July 31, 2019) at the Shrewsbury School. The sound quality is spacious and warm, but at no cost to clarity. The booklet includes brief notes by the composer and librettist as well as an uncredited essay that supplies helpful background on the cantata. I enjoyed getting to know this work, although I wish that the choir had come up with more material to fill out the disc.
Henry Fogel, Fanfare, June 2020