A virtuoso violinist and an equally virtuosic oud player walk into a bar, conjuring up the ultimate East-meets-West musical experience. The result is a renewed version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with unexpected yet “classical” Arabic instruments – the oud (a plucked string instrument akin to the lute) and the riq’ (a type of tambourine).
There was an extremely generous audience reception to the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Four Seasons program last Wednesday evening. From this listener a feeling of gratitude to Richard Tognetti and the ACO for their uplifting concert at this time of the year. Why gratitude? Into the mix came two Egyptian/Australian brothers – the elder Joseph Tawadros on the oud (pictured) and the younger James Tawadros (a master at 25 years) playing the riq’.
I couldn’t have imagined what the heady mix of Italian and Egyptian virtuosity might entail and to be honest it pays to be wary of programs that muck around too much with what is already a complete work of art. Undoubtedly one of the most revered works in baroque instrumental music, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons provides the performer and listener with an immediately edifying musical language, evoking barking dogs, chattering teeth and other seasonal images.
Opening with a musical amuse bouche in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sonata XXI “con tre violini”, it was good to see some solo and leading roles going to younger ACO players throughout the night, including Ike See and Glenn Christensen who performed with confidence, if not light on flair.
Moving into Tawadros’ Kindred Spirits, grounded in the melancholic D minor, both composition and playing was hypnotic and resplendent. Improvisation looms large in the art of Joseph Tawadros, and teamed with his technical ease is listening pleasure.
The very moment that Vivaldi’s Spring erupted in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall there came… laughter. It was a rare, joyous moment prompted by a sweet and unexpected transition. It was here that the East/West juxtaposition rang true, as the oud and riq’ spoke convincingly as part of the fabric rather than as addendum. In the final movement James Tawadros’ riq’ added further rhythmic grounding and warmth.
Summer came as a surprise, elevated from the original by a heraldic duet between Tognetti and Joseph Tawadros, with athletic semiquavers and rhythmic ducking and weaving adding spice. Neal Peres da Costa switched it up too moving between harpsichord and chamber organ, further adding to the unusual timbral mix. Another gem came before interval, Eye of the Beholder, high-energy playing from all musicians with its festival atmosphere, as if the players were now courageous enough to fully let down their hair.
Joseph Tawadros’ sartorial style continued after the break and this listener found no need for a suspension of disbelief, the ear having accepted the coupling of such geographically diverse instruments. Vivaldi’s Grave from the Concerto per la solennita was one of the highlights of the evening, making a feature of James Tawadros riq’, the simplest of instruments comprising a small stretched drum and five little cymbals around the rim. A true virtuoso, he coaxed such subtlety out of his instrument it’s not hard to see why he’s a regular collaborator with the likes of jazz legends Jack de Johnette and John Patitucci.
Claude Debussy wrote, “The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous will happen. “ One feels this at times with Richard Tognetti, and in the wintry installment of the Four Seasons he was on fire with a great array of technical feats, the switch to bow vibrato being a highlight.
Tawadros’s piece from his latest album Permission to Evaporate was captivating, introducing the younger James on the bendir (a medium-sized framed drum), and augmenting unearthly string sounds sprung from simple riffs. Joseph Tawadros’ music is harmonically very simple, often based around a few chords, matching well with Vivaldi’s harmonic architecture. A reading of Michael Leunig’s accompanying poem, which appeared only in the program, might have added even more poignancy to this work:
“A quick and airy little gasp was done, as up I went into the moon and sun. Like some fading floating song I simply just accepted it for free. What life had given me – Permission to evaporate.”