When the Roads Meet: Balkan Crossings, Anja and Zlatna’s first concert of 2017 took place on Saturday, 8 April. Repertoire from diverse Balkan nations – including Serbia, Romani Hungary and Macedonia – were elegantly interwoven with storytelling and imagery into a coherent and moving whole. The intimacy of Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon immediately drew the audience into the world conjured by each song, whilst also allowing the musicianship of each group member to shine in its transparent acoustic.
Since their formation in 2013, Anja and Zlatna have been celebrating and preserving traditional melodies from the Balkan region by mingling folk and seventeenth century improvisational languages. This is most strikingly apparent in the ensemble’s instrumentation. When the Roads Meet: Balkan Crossings featured vocalists Aleksandra Acker and Kirsty Morphett, flautist Michael O’Connor, Andrew Tanner on bass and mouth harp, and harpsichordist Donald Nicolson. Percussionist Matthew Horsley was ill and did not perform. His absence was compensated for in songs marked by their complex rhythms – Moja ciganuĆka and Na srce mi leži mila mamo – with successful rearrangements by Acker which shared rhythmic responsibility amongst the whole ensemble. Acker and Morphett provided sparse yet effective percussion – in addition to their strong vocal performance – for several songs in the program, and O’Connor, Tanner, and Nicolson’s deep understanding of the repertoire was clear in their respective rhythmically sound performances. The instrumentalists’ skill was also evident in their ability to manipulate the sounds of their instruments into something quite unlike what the audience expected: from the harpsichord, we heard cimbalom, guitar and percussion, and from the flute, kaval and ney.
When the Roads Meet: Balkan Crossings opened with Aremu, a song from the Greek musical tradition in southern Italy in which songs about immigration and nostalgia for one’s homeland are prominent. Using Bulgarian chest voice, Acker and Morphett skillfully evoked the potent longing present in the song’s lyrics, with the narrator asking a swallow for news from home: “if only you could speak, how much you would have told me!” This was a fitting beginning to the concert’s predominating themes of love and home, which Acker, Morphett, and Nicolson elucidated with short introductions to each song.
The diversity of repertoire performed by Anja and Zlatna was mirrored by the diverse audience who, while coming from a variety of backgrounds, met at this performance. Some audience members – including a 94-year-old woman – sang along to familiar songs from their homeland, while others simply absorbed the tapestry of musical colours created by the performers; all were affected in their own way, yet comfortable in the intimate setting.
Throughout When the Roads Meet: Balkan Crossings, Anja and Zlatna highlighted the results of immigration and cross-cultural exchange, by turns joyous and solemn. In the current political climate, there is no doubt that instead of fearing difference, we should find similarity where it appears there is only dissimilarity; music is an ideal vehicle by which to do so. It is heartening to see this at the centre of Anja and Zlatna’s practice, and it was similarly encouraging that When the Roads Meet: Balkan Crossings was sold out over a week before it took place. Be sure to get your tickets for their next concert – Love and Other Secrets – before this almost certainly happens again.
Anja and Zlatna are part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes Series in 2017.