Peter Bay knew he wanted the Austin Symphony Orchestra to perform “Compassion” when he first heard the piece a couple of years ago.
A song cycle for symphony orchestra and solo voice in seven movements, the lyrics to “Compassion” are a compilation of ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts — poems and proverbs that all reference the idea of compassion between people and cultures.
“This piece couldn’t be more relevant for our times,” says Bay, the orchestra’s music director. “It’s necessary that we perform it.”
A collaborative creation by Australian composer Nigel Westlake and Israeli-born Australian singer-songwriter Lior Attar, “Compassion” emerged from a very personal tragedy.
Westlake — whose major claim to fame is his soundtrack for the 1995 movie “Babe” — penned “Missa Solis: Requiem for Eli” in honor of his son who was murdered in a road rage incident in 2008 shortly before his 22nd birthday.
Attar — who professionally bills himself by the single name Lior — was a favorite of Westlake’s son, and the family invited Lior to perform at a fundraising concert for a foundation established in Eli’s honor. Lior sang Avinu Malkeinu, the Jewish hymn of compassion.
That performance inspired a collaboration between Westlake and Lior.
“I had just experienced a small taste of a tantalizing and exotic sound-world and was overcome by a strange yearning to be a part of it,” Westlake writes in his program notes.
“Compassion,” a commission by Australia’s Sydney Symphony, premiered in 2013. This weekend’s presentation by the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Lior marks the piece’s North American premiere.
The songs are sung in Hebrew and Arabic and reflect Lior’s signature sound — contemporary music with influences from Jewish and Middle Eastern music. Bay describes the 40-minute “Compassion” as cinematic in style, with musical flourishes both ancient and modern offering entry points for many kinds of listeners.
“It’s certainly emotionally impactful music, but there’s more than a glimmer of hope in it,” Bay says.
It took some programmatic finagling to get “Compassion” on the orchestra’s season. Bay doesn’t have complete control over the orchestra’s programming. A committee of board members has the final say on the season’s roster.
“It’s important that we be able to perform contemporary music like (‘Compassion’) and we need to do more of it,” Bay says.
So Bay built a program around “Compassion” that features well-known repertoire leveraged for clever thematic effect, titling the evening “The Sounds of Hope.”
Bay and the orchestra will begin the concert with the overture to Verdi’s opera “Nabucco,” essentially a medley of themes and arias from the operatic tale about the plight of the ancient Jews as they are conquered and exiled by the Babylonian King Nabucco.
It’s a musical sketch of sorts, Bay says, that sets up the ideas explored later in “Compassion.”
And the addition of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the composer’s well-known “Unfinished Symphony” to the program?
It’s a symbolic gesture, Bay explains.
“Compassion is very much unfinished business in our times.”
“The Sounds of Hope”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Dell Hall, Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: 512-476-6064, austinsymphony.org