Ancient sounds enthral

The Song Company, led by its artistic director Roland Peelman, always celebrates the magic of the human voice, but in its first concert of this year's tour season it will also celebrate the magic of the voice of an instrument whose origins go back more than 5000 years - the oud.

Peelman first met oud player Joseph Tawadros when he was about 19, a student at the University of NSW.

Roland Peelman.
Roland Peelman. 

"I was really impressed when I heard him play, not only because he was clearly already a virtuoso, but also by the fact that an oud player was profiling himself as a real force to be reckoned with here in Australia," Peelman says.

Tawadros was born in Cairo, came to Australia as a boy but then returned to Egypt and received his education there. Then he came back to Australia where he now lives. He'll play during The Song Company's tour which reaches Canberra on April 13 when they'll give a concert at St Christopher's Cathedral in Manuka.

The oud is commonly used in Middle Eastern and African music. "There's a great Iraqi tradition of the oud - where typically it's a slightly smaller instrument and slightly higher sounding - and it's used in Turkey and in Egypt," Peelman says. "It's really a predecessor of the lute which was so common and dominant in Western music of the 16th and 17th centuries. The oud is entwined with both the spiritual and Sufi traditions of Turkey and the Middle East and it's really beautiful.

''It has the same ornamentation that you find in Middle Eastern architecture and miniatures - the actual building of the oud itself, the way the bridge is made. It's not an easy instrument to play but it's gorgeous to hear when a trained musician plays. It touches the heart."

''When Joseph and I met we immediately began to talk about what we might do together. In 2007 we explored this great mediaeval play from a French manuscript from the early 13th century and we wanted to set this piece in Jerusalem where the play was set, so it wouldn't sound as though it came from France but from the Middle East.

''I invited Joseph and his brother James into this production and something really beautiful and fascinating developed, and we even recorded it. We did several performances in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. It's one of my CDs that I'm immensely proud of.

''It then took a little while to find a new platform, but last year I went to Joseph again and said, 'What about The Prophet?'" The Prophet is a book by the Lebanese poet, philosopher and artist Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931) and claimed to be one of the most widely read books in the world.

"Why hadn't we thought about it before?" Peelman says, "because Gibran's work has been a major source of inspiration to Joseph. He released a CD, The Prophet, in 2009 and then his 2012 CD, Concerto of the Greater Sea, with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for which he won an Aria award, was directly inspired by various passages from Gibran's work.

''So I thought, 'Come on Joseph! Let's get our act together and use Gibran's words and set them to music.' Joseph's an instrumentalist. He'd never really written any music to be sung, so it took a little while, working on how we could make the words sound natural and organic. But after our Melbourne performance I thought, 'We've got something to be really proud of."

Peelman says that one can draw parallels between the lives of Tawadros and Gibran who left Lebanon to live in Boston as a child before returning to Lebanon at 15 to study in Beirut. He then returned to the US where he died in New York in 1931.

Peelman describes the tour program as a mix of the old and the new. "It's a very spiritual program, I think, but not in an overtly religious way," he says. "It's a great mix of Christian and Muslim and even Jewish traditions. I see it as part of The Song Company's world view."

The program also includes selected chants from the legendary Hildegard von Bingen and from Fyodor Krestyanin, known as one of the most famous singers of the znamenny chant at the Russian court of Ivan the Terrible.

"And we have an extra gentleman, the Scottish baritone, Simon Masterton, who used to sing with the Swingle Singers, with us for this concert," Peelman says. "Because so much of this program is ancient music and there was a certain bias against women singing in the church, we had to reinforce the bottom end of the ensemble. We're really very pleased to have him with us."

And how would Peelman describe the key element of this concert?

"What links this concert is the oud," he says, "Joseph's playing and the way we relate to it as singers and the words by Gibran.

''I think people will be mesmerised by this beautiful music."

  • The Song Company performs The Prophet at St Christopher's Cathedral, Manuka at 6pm, Saturday, April 13. Bookings: songcompany.com.au. Phone: 02 8256 2222.