I’ve always wanted to write a concerto, but it is a massive undertaking and it wasn’t until discussions with MSO’s Director of Artistic Planning Ronald Vermeulen that the prospect started to become a reality. I have always wanted to take the oud further than the traditional Arabic music platform and for the last 20 years I have done my best to push it into ‘unorthodox’ musical areas through cross cultural collaboration, understanding of cultures and the composition of new works that challenge the instrument.
With this concerto, I wanted to do something big, showcasing the oud in a new light and for it to be a technical benchmark for future players. It was very important for me that the music was true in intention, not just a bombardment of technical ability, but emotionally engaging, beautiful and full of energy. I wanted the music to be modern but also pay homage to the beauty of the old and be a bridge between Western classical music and Eastern music, with a traditional classical concerto as its framework.
The concerto is primarily in the Arabic Mode Nawa Athar, which is like a C Harmonic Minor scale but with a raised 4th (F#). This has quite a Middle Eastern sound, but the scale gives some flexibility to modulate on related modes also from the tonic of C. It is in three movements, following a traditional fast-slow-fast structure, but within each movement there are considerable changes in tempo and meter. The three movements are all in the key of C Major, which is quite intentional as I wanted the concerto to possess an element of the Wasla.
In Arabic music (particularly traditional Egyptian Music), there is a structure called a Wasla – basically a set of different pieces, usually lasting half an hour to an hour, grouped together due to them being in the same mode and key. For example, you could have an instrumental introduction in C Major, then a song in C Major, followed by an instrumental interlude in C Major, then an improvisation in C Major and so forth – a type of Middle Eastern concerto if you will. I have tried to consolidate both these forms within my piece, and there is a degree of improvisation that is very much indicative of the Wasla form.
Something also to note, is that this is the first concerto written for a seven course oud. The most popular modern day ouds are six courses (grouped into five double strings and one single string). The seven course instrument (grouped into five double strings and two single strings) give the instrument more of a range. The bass strings are very rarely played on in a melodic sense and mostly used for certain ornaments and colour. In this concerto, the whole range and fingerboard of the oud is utilised and the oud’s first entry in the opening movement features a melody played on the lowest bass string that is quite challenging in terms of fingering, especially at a brisk pace. This could not be performed on a six course instrument.
The concerto has elements of many different styles of music while maintaining an integrity of sound, something I’ve always strived for in my composition. Seamless changes of emotion, texture and energy prove that the oud can not only hold its own in any musical context, but have something significant to say.
Joseph Tawardros will premiere his new Oud Concerto at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival 2017.