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Spices, Silks & La Serenissima

Hamer Hall, Melbourne Arts Centre
03/19/2023 -  & March 11 (Canberra), 13 (Brisbane), 14, 15, 16 (Sydney), 18, 20 (Melbourne), 21 (Adelaide), 22 (Perth), 25, 26 (Sydney), 27 (Wollongong), 2023
Mehmed VI Vahideddin: Nihavend Taksim
Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in D major “Grosso Mogul”, RV208: II. Grave  – The Four Seasons, Op. 8: Spring, RV269, Summer, RV315, Autumn, RV293, & Winter, RV297
Joseph Tawadros: Kindred Spirits – Permission to Evaporate – Eye of the Beholder – Give or Take – Point of Departure – Constantinople
Tanburi Angel: Makām-i-Rehavi Cember-i-Koca (Ottoman March)

Joseph Tawadros (Oud), James Tawadros (Riq’ & Bendir)
The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (Director & Violin)

R. Tognetti, J. Tawadros (© Courtesy ACO)

The capacity audience may well have entered Hamer Hall wondering what Middle Eastern instruments the oud and riq’ have to do with Venice and the “red Priest” but they were soon to find an answer: “everything”. In a signature move by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), modern and little‑known pieces were to be juxtaposed against the most well‑known classical repertoire to reveal inherent intimacies of style, melody and technique. Re‑uniting with Tognetti and the ACO for this concert tour are Australian-Egyptians oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros and his brother James, a master of the riq’. Joseph is a long-time friend and collaborator with Tognetti and a seasoned composer and performer both in Australia and on the international stage.

The oud was adopted into the European family of instruments as the lute and mandolin and it is immediately clear when the orchestra takes its seats that it is on stage with distant cousins, the theorbo and the baroque guitar. The riq’ however, is alone as a percussion voice in this ensemble. It resembles a tambourine with tiny cymbals around its circumference and the addition of a transparent “skin” which produces a wide range of notes along with its rhythmical beats.

And where does Venice come into all this? Author Robert Dessaix describes The Queen of the Adriatic as an immense market where every exotic luxury was available for sale. It was populated by vendors and customers from far distant lands and locals eager to capitalise on Europe’s gateway for the glamorous, sensuous and desirable. Trade with the Middle East had long been channelled through Venice and with it came the irresistible influences of music, the arts and sciences.

To tell this story in music, this program by the ACO begins with the plaintive and ethereal sound of solo oud in an improvisation which draws the western instruments into a transcribed Middle Eastern composition. It is a blend which is to develop and flourish through this concert. As if to counter the dazzling virtuosity of Joseph Tawadros, Richard Tognetti wields his glorious 1743 Guarneri del Gesù violin as a weapon when he launches into the brief but glittering second movement of the Vivaldi RV208. It is clear that between these two musical ‘bookends’, we are to be treated to a show of superior playing and a confluence of disparate influences.

As in their 2015 iteration of this concert, Maestro Tognetti has orchestrated many of Tawadros’ pieces for the ACO. This performance incorporates more eastern music than its earlier version but makes similar statements about the inter-connectedness of the musical world of Venice. Tawadros’ pieces are variously languid, emotive, mournful and energetic. The rapidity of his movements as a player is mesmerising and the range of musical voices he is able to draw from the instrument a marvel. Equally, his brother James is able to elicit a myriad resonances from his tiny drum and the occasional employment of its larger percussion ‘cousin’ the bendir, also a drum but without the cymbals and producing an entirely different sound.

With the most performed music in the repertoire having the title billing, it is unsurprising that there is an expectant hush in the audience as the Spring concerto commences. There is no use of the oud in this arrangement, only the riq’ joining the exuberance of the final movement. It adds a relevant “early music” percussion texture to the ritornello which we usually expect to rely solely on strings. The oud is to join the later concerti and feature in its own spectacular showcase numbers.

All but one of the Tawadros pieces in this concert are drawn from Tognetti’s orchestrations of Tawadros’ 2014 album “Permission to Evaporate.” It is this title composition with its aching, melancholy lines which separates the Spring and Summer concerti. Written after losing his parents, it calms, and heals, tempering the liveliness of the Vivaldi piece. This separation will occur again in the second half of the concert when the Autumn and Winter concerti are divided by Point of Departure. Evocative of its Arabian origins, the oud is dominant here and it conjures the sights, sounds smells and tastes which were drawn to Venice and which now draw us in to be transfixed by the brilliance of Joseph Tawadros’ skill on this instrument.

The three remaining concerti from Vivaldi’s Opus 8 are interspersed with references to the Middle East and hints of the modern, timeless quality of not only the music of his time but influences from the near and far east. As a lesson in musical history, this concert offers much to the listener, as a demonstration of instrumental playing into stratospheric territory, it is a revelation. This sold out series of concerts is an exciting prelude to the ACO’s North American tour in April.

Gregory Pritchard



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