From the Balkans and Beyond

Article details

Published: 12th November, 2016

Classic Melbourne’s support for Anja and Zlatna is well known – and we strongly endorse their current initiative: their concert this weekend From the Balkans and Beyond, is to help support children in Nauru’s detention centre. If you’ve never heard this vibrant ensemble (there are more of them than the two singers!), Hannah Spracklan-Holl’s review tells it all. She heard their second concert as part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes series, Letters from Beyond, on August 3 this year.

“The ensemble seeks to weave traditional Balkan folk melodies with the ‘structural architecture of the Baroque’, an aim evident in the instrumentation of their six-person ensemble: two voices, organ, harpsichord, flute, acoustic bass, balalaika, mouth harp, percussion and uilleann pipes. In Letters from Beyond, these instruments were used to create a musical narrative through the exploration of “the phenomena of dreams, nature and mortality” and “the adoration of the magical powers of trees, flowers, horses and the radiance of the sun and the moon” as expressed in music of the Balkans.

The Balkans, while a diverse region, are known for cultural commonalities, with these especially represented in traditional music. Complex Balkan politics and the combination of national identities with the cross-cultural influences are also reflected in the reimagining of folk melodies and musical narratives across the region. These interdependencies were clear from the concert’s opening work, the Hymn of Mother of God of St. Nectarius of Aegina. The hymn is a non-liturgical Orthodox hymn, originally composed in Greek but performed in this concert in Church Slavonic, reflecting the Serbian heritage of the vocalist Anja Acker. Venerating the Virgin Mary and her presence in nature (“oh wood and tree of life”) in equal parts, the hymn was a fine, if solemn, introduction to the themes of the concert.

As the concert progressed, illustrative, short introductions were given to each of the songs, explaining their connections to long traditions of Balkan mythology and folklore. Most interesting were two Serbian songs, Zaspo Janko and Tamo Deleko, the former telling of a girl dreaming of her first love, and the latter a song about the longing for homeland. Tamo Deleko, while a traditional Serbian song, was also adopted by other cultures after WWI as an anthem for soldiers killed in the war. In Serbian folklore, poetry and music seem inseparable. The resulting characteristics of this connection, such as repetition of a melodic motif, distinguished Zaspo Janko and Tamo Deleko from other songs performed.

When it comes to the musical trade, the ensemble displayed versatility and vigour. The arrangements of the pieces were particularly well conceived, combining composed and improvised elements effortlessly. Donald Nicolson, known for his virtuoso keyboard playing in many early music ensembles, once again revealed his stylistic versatility, managing to lure the sounds of many instruments – from flamenco guitars to Hungarian cimbalom – from his harpsichord. Michael O’Connor masterfully brought forth otherworldly colours of ney and kaval on his standard western flute. Double-bassist Andre Tanner exhibited exceptional flair and precision, providing excellent support throughout. He also surprised the audience with the tone colours of the mouth-harp, which in combination with those of the uilleann pipes, played by Matthew Horsley, added another dimension to the character of the performance. Horsley, on percussion, also met the challenge of the rhythmic complexity of such diverse repertoire.

The vocal harmony of Anja Acker and Kirsty Morphett and their expressive signing techniques had a special effect on listeners, bringing some audience members to tears. Towards the end of the concert it became evident that some of the audience members knew the songs, and were invited by Anja to sing along freely. This participation created an intimate and shared musical context, blurring the line between performers and audience. Furthermore, it revealed the concert as a plethora of mixed cultural identities which brought together diverse languages and musical forms. It is undoubtedly challenging to integrate folk music traditions into the European musical canon. However, by presenting traditional songs at a venue and in a series often associated with western art music, Anja & Zlatna are certainly crossing these canonical boundaries.”


Writer Hannah Spracklan-Holl studies at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.

Details of Anja & Zlatna’s next concert, From the Balkans and Beyond