To review “Dance Until the Sunrise” is both an enormous pleasure and a challenge! It could be likened to witnessing a brilliant and awe-inspiring display of fireworks, or the Northern Lights, or an outback night sky heavy with stars, whilst concurrently absorbing a unique and musically supreme combination of voices and instruments, possibly unlike any orchestral or operatic experience one may have experienced previously.
The program was in itself an in-depth journey through a range of distinctive cultures from the Balkans and beyond and hence gave the audience an enriching and unforgettable hour in the Primrose Potter Salon on Saturday 16 November. In order to attempt to convey something of the powerful impact of this multi-faceted performance, I wish to note a few elements that emerged to contribute to what was professionally and experientially a unique and compelling hour. The first element relates to the stunning and professional performances of the six artists. Through their unique skills, they gave the audience a profound understanding of distinct and complex life stories contained in the twelve compositions. Through various combinations of voice (with voice), voices (with instruments), or instruments (with instruments), the audience’s understanding of the complex and dynamic emotions and relationships embedded within each song was enhances through a musical rendition of dialogue or duet. It was indeed thrilling to be uplifted through such varied “dialogues” of purity and sublime musical artistry. In parenthesis, it mattered not how small or large the instrument was in its ability to be heard in the dialogues! The two “voices” of Aleksandra “Anja” Acker and Kirsty “Zlatna” Morphett were separately distinctive and yet blended perfectly, as indeed was the case with the instruments: Donald Nicholson (harpsichord), Andrew Tanner (acoustic bass), Tim Nikolsky (guitars), and Ryan Williams (recorders). The juxtaposition of harpsichord and Jew’s harp or small recorder reminded me of the tender metaphor of the elephant and the mouse.
A second element refers to the diverse multicultural backgrounds of the compositions. Thus the design of the programs lent itself to an exhilarating and profound journey into life stories, which were not only culturally varied but also varied in mood and musical emotion.
Each composition in the program was profound, exploring emotions and at the same time culturally grounded, hence each song demanded a musical excellence in quality and ability of singer and instrumentalist. Anja and Zlatna’s artistry and control were a joy to hear, as well as each instrument (no matter how large or small!) playing a vital role in the story-telling. The audience was, from the beginning, swept along with the stories and their inherent grief, joy, humor, cheekiness, weaknesses, strengths, and passions.
A third significant element relates to how Anja’s knowledge and love of the music chosen was immediately inclusive. She introduced each piece with some poetic or literary text or allusion to the backgrounds of the composers, always with an enthusiasm and passion colored by tenderness, humor, sadness, and insight.
A final element relates to how the performance per se was a unique and evolving event. It had a tsunami-like character, although beginning on a gentle, far-away wave, which soon swept the audience up in emotion, laughter, dance, repartee and, I think, rapture, finally exemplified by a weaving chain of dancing members of the audience accompanied by clapping and laughing instruments.
The program gave full expression or voice to a full range of instrumental music and song primarily from the Balkan world. I will outline it chronologically and briefly with a few inclusions of Anja’s introductory comments.
The first piece was a Macedonian traditional song which Anja described as perhaps “the saddest song written in the Balkans”, adding with a whimsical smile, “Balkans have to be sad to be happy”. The guitar and recorder filled the Salon with a piercing melancholy, which reflected the haunting voices of the singers and were accompanied by the harpsichord.
The second item, “Thalassa lypisou”, is a Greek traditional song filled with lust and longing, introduced by a vibrant and throbbing guitar, joined by the harpsichord, a recorder, and the bass. Anja’s opening words were “I weep and moan and gaze at the sea, because of the two sweet eyes in a foreign land, that I miss”. The duet of voices and instruments sounded as if they were calling each other from different sides of an ocean, indeed the bass soared like the distant call of a far-off ship’s horn, and the guitar and bass played as if each were calling and answering the other from a far distance.
The third composition was composed by Serbian writer, teacher and poet Milorad Petrovic Selijancica (1875-1921). Anja described the song as a story depicting handsome Serbian men who could “show off” their looks and strengths. Anja sang in a fast moving dialogue accompanied by the sweet penetrating trilling of the small recorder (redolent of a bird call) and the swift and compelling throbbing of the bass, guitar, and harpsichord. The recorder was applauded frequently, reflecting the growing involvement of the audience.
The fourth piece was a Bulgarian traditional love song where a girl desires that her man will love her forever, with the lingering but perhaps forlorn hope for monogamy. Throughout this piece, all the instruments with voices filled the Salon with an exhilarating and absolute harmony without any one dominating, except perhaps the recorder floated above the others pensively.
The fifth composition was a Macedonian traditional (composer Stani Mome) exemplifying the common theme in Macedonian songs of dialogue between partners. (This one is where the young man is being told to stop doing what he is doing and “dance to the beautiful music as we only live once”.) The recorder player, Ryan Williams, went roving near the audience, who applauded with joy, and the piece concluded with contagious staccato throbbing from the harpischord.
The sixth piece, again a Macedonian traditional song, was followed by a (seventh) Turkish traditional instrumental piece for which Donald Nicolson gave full throttle to the harpsichord, hands flying over the keyboards; it ended in a stunning way in a minor key.
The eighth item, a Bosnian traditional love song known as a sevdalinka, evoked pining and longing for a loved one or for another place or time. The two voices expressed questions on their minds, dresses swinging until the rhythmic beat slowed into a quietness.
The ninth piece was an Italian traditional song, “Firenze sogna”. (“Florence, tonight you’re beautiful under a blanket of stars that in the sky are glittering, flickering like little flames”.) This song was redolent of a romantic Florence at night, with the musicians demonstrating how they excel in creating sublime images of stars, a balcony, a waltz rhythm and a vibrant serenading from below. Each instrument and voice responded to each other.
The tenth item, “Vlah”, a Romanian traditional instrumental, thrilled the audience with the playing of the Jew’s harp, which sang over all others until the harpsichord responded with the other instruments in superb rhythmic harmony. It did not drown out the recorder, which soared tremulously with a drawn out melodious ending.
The eleventh piece was a tribute to the “incredible, generous musician” Saban Bajramovic (1936-2008), whose music spanned four decades. In this chosen piece, Anja quoted the lyrics: “Everyone is happy…dancing…but my mother, wife and my daughter, they are crying, terribly sad that I have to leave…Don’t you cry, I will come back – in a year”. Anja spoke passionately about her strong desire to “prolong the legacy” of Bajramovic. In this song, “Kerta mange daje”, the dialogues between voices and instruments were assertive and harmonious. Spontaneously, but not unexpectedly, about 20 women with two children joined Anja in dancing through the rows, around the back row, and back onto the “stage”.
The final piece was a Romani (Russian traditional) entitled “Progeja”. The text presented by Anja was “Walking down the street, a young man is dragging his feet. I am following him, exhausted and penniless, troubles won’t leave me. He had arrived from town and decided to befriend me – a poor girl. God bless him, but he drinks, spends money.” The harpsichord, with slow “dragging” rhythm, introduced the piece and was joined by the slow-paced voices of Anja and Zlatna. Other instruments then entered with duets between the harpsichord and the bass followed by others. Suddenly, the recorder pierced the harmony with a penetrating solo, the pace picked up, the audience clapped and was divided into two halves by Anja. Then, yet another dialogue or duet filled the Salon, this last dialogue sung by the audience. What a climax to an incredible and powerful evening.
Rosemary Wearing reviewed “Dance Until the Sunrise” on 16 November 2019 at the Primrose Potter Salon at Melbourne Recital Centre.
Photo: Recorder artist Ryan Williams. Photo supplied.