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MUSIC REVIEW

Combined choirs deliver a stellar ‘Son of Man’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2011

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According to Genesis, God created man in His own image; Kahlil Gibran returned the favor with his 1928 book “Jesus the Son of Man,’’ a decidedly Gibran-esque incarnation of God’s son. Composer Kareem Roustom added a substantial musical gloss to Gibran’s gospel with “The Son of Man,’’ an oratorio commissioned by United Parish in Brookline, premiered there on May 8, and performed again on Sunday at Church of the Covenant by Coro Allegro and the United Parish Chancel Choir.

Gibran’s tapestry of invented oral histories portrays a Jesus of mysterious, aphoristic spirituality, a not-so-distant cousin of Almustafa in Gibran’s wildly popular “The Prophet.’’ From the book’s testimonies (ranging from steadfast to skeptical), Roustom picked six of particularly magnified emotions. The music, too, is pitched toward the impassioned, adapting Arabic-derived scales into a rich, heavily perfumed chromaticism, affording both eerie atmosphere and high-impact drama.

The drama, at times, gets mired in a pervasive solemnity. Often, each line brings a change of musical gears. And no matter the musical tempo, the text mostly unfolds at the same measured pace. But Roustom’s sheer resourcefulness provides compensation; sounds are big and splashy, with generous doses of arresting color. The opening deftly morphs a dance of cymbals and harp into a heavy mass of timpani and deep organ pedals. Mary Magdalene’s monologue is cast over a slow swirl of harp-and-bell coruscation. Moment to moment, the invention is prolific.

The performance was excellent. Under conductor David Hodgkins, the combined choruses realized the score’s demands with confidence and stamina. Soprano Elissa Alvarez’s Mary Magdalene was intensely lyrical; mezzo Amy Oraftik gave firm clarity to the lament of a neighbor of Mary; tenor James DeSelms pliantly proclaimed Jesus’ transcendence of worldly power; bass David Kravitz was a resonant, oracular John the Baptist. The musicians — harpist Barbara Poeschl-Edrich, trumpeter Tony Gimenez, percussionists Robert Schulz and Jonathan Hess — offered exact milieus. Organist Susan DeSelms, United Parish’s music director, was especially valuable, underpinning the whole with secure flair and kaleidoscopic proficiency.

A contemporary reviewer of “The Prophet’’ found “charm in surrendering oneself to its rhythm, until the rhythm becomes a little too monotonous’’; “The Son of Man’’ courted a similar effect. But it also evoked Gibran’s dreamy, inclusive exoticism, at once both distantly formal and immediately intimate. Roustom’s sympathy is such that both the oratorio’s intermittent weaknesses and its atmospheric strengths paralleled Gibran’s own.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

CORO ALLEGRO David Hodgkins, director

UNITED PARISH CHANCEL CHOIR Susan DeSelms, director

Roustom: “The Son of Man’’

At: Church of the Covenant, Sunday