Three plucked chords from Joseph Tawadros’ oud hung in the air of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, before the virtuoso, alone on stage, began building up the texture, his music grounded by the repeated knell of a bass string. Taqasim Kord, an improvisatory work using the Arabic mode kord – analogous to Western music’s Phrygian mode – immersed the audience in the sound world of the Cairo-born Australian musician and composer’s instrument, a short-necked Middle Eastern lute.

Joseph TawadrosJames Tawadros, Joseph Tawadros, Benjamin Northey and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

The multi-award winning Tawadros has made a career of blurring the boundaries between middle-eastern classical music, contemporary jazz and Western classical music, and is known for his easy-going stage presence and quick-witted banter – all of which he brought to the Opera House in spades in this concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Just as the texture of the opening number built gradually, so too did the concert evolve. James Tawadros joined his brother on the Egyptian Req – a type of tambourine – for a number from the 2009 album The Prophet: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Khalil Gibran, inspired by the poet’s words “work is love made visible”, before conductor Benjamin Northey and the musicians of the SSO joined the brothers onstage for Tawadros’ Concerto for Oud and Orchestra, which premiered at 2017’s Metropolis festival in Melbourne.

Here the energy of Tawadros’ oud was writ large across the (amplified) orchestra, strings writhing in fierce unison as Northey kicked off the work’s bold opening, before the oud’s earthy low register rumbled into the mix. In orchestration by Jessica Wells, the SSO’s sound had a film-score directness (especially in the use of bass drum and cymbal), the orchestra embracing the melodically-based music and keeping pace with Tawadros’ wild pace. While there were moments of slight tension between ensemble and oud when it felt like the two might begin to pull apart, Northey kept it all tight, deftly navigating the complex metrical changes and break-neck tempo with aplomb. Moments of quiet emerged in Tawadros’ fantasia-like cadenzas, while the centre movement was hauntingly atmospheric – and featured a compelling, keen-edged cor anglais solo by guest musician Rixon Thomas – before James Tawadros built up the groove again on Req, the brothers playing with an easy, low-key – but rock-solid – synchronicity. The third movement, opening with driving lower strings, brought the music to a vibrant climax.

The first movement from Mozart’s ‘little’ G Minor Symphony, which opened the concert’s second half, felt slightly out of place as the only non-Tawadros composition on the program (though chosen by the oud player), but there was certainly an affinity between the febrile energy of this gem of Mozart’s early output – particularly in this taut, polished reading by Northey and the SSO – and the crackling urgency of the oud music.

Tawadros showed off his remarkable flexibility in the solo work Constellation, which drew on the music of instruments from the Japanese koto (particularly in the piece’s opening) to the African kora and the banjo, before the SSO joined the Tawadros brothers once more for Permission to Evaporate and Eye of the Beholder, the latter a lively musical exploration of the proposition “if Vivaldi were Egyptian” which drew parallels between the Red Priest’s violin concertos and Egyptian musical traditions – though there was also a touch of John Williams in Jules Buckley’s orchestration, which at times threatened to overwhelm the soloist. One of the highlights of this bracket was the hushed, reflective Point of Departure a “farewell waltz” composed in memory of the Tawadros brothers’ parents, before Joseph Tawadros’ furious shredding in Constantinople had the audience on its feet. Tawadros seamlessly switched influences again for the encore, Bluegrass Nikriz, inspired by his collaboration with banjo player Bela Fleck, which brings together the Arabic mode Nikriz with the blues scale, and capped off a warm-hearted concert that was, quite simply, loads of fun.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Oud is at the Sydney Opera House until June 22


The concert on June 21 will be streamed live as part of Make Music Day 2019 at 7pm AEST. Watch a replay of the concert here.

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