Richard Petkovic forms an orchestra to change the world

Richard Petkovic didn’t set out to form a band, he set out to realise a vision. The term “broad church” is tossed around in politics, but Petkovic’s Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra is the real thing, with Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity and more represented among Australians of some 10 ethnicities.

The orchestra is a central attraction in another of Petkovic’s visions, the annual Sydney Sacred Music Festival. As director of both the festival and the orchestra (as well as being a guitarist and a harmonium player), Petkovic aims to push against the tide of adverse commentary on Australia’s multiculturalism.

“I had this desire to create a really positive vehicle for multicultural communities and their art,” he says. “I really wanted to showcase these wonderful hidden treasures we have in our community.”

Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra, with Richard Petkovic at left. Photo supplied.

Despite its name the festival is not actually faith-based. “It’s about reclaiming the word ‘sacred’,” says Petkovic. “It’s about creating dialogue around what is sacred. Whether you believe in God, the universe, the environment or social justice, this festival is about you, because it’s about people who think beyond themselves.”

When the orchestra first assembled in 2014 the members swapped life stories and talked about their cultures, rituals and sources of inspiration. They then tried to express these in music, with Petkovic as facilitator. Implicit in his vision was embracing cross-cultural instrumentation that more truly reflects western Sydney (where most of the players are based) than a traditional orchestra’s does. A snapshot of its breadth might include Indigenous singer Gambirra Illume, Mongolian throat-singer and horse-fiddle player Bukhu Ganburged, Ghanaian drummer Yaw Derkyi, Vietnamese classical guitarist Ngoc Tuan Hoang and Uyghur vocalist and dutar player Shohrat Tursun.

Most of the players are not full-time professionals. “We’ve got the classic taxi-verses-Uber driver in our orchestra,” says Petkovic. “Yaw is a taxi-driver and our Persian violinist, Seyed Salar, is Uber. He’s an asylum-seeking refugee currently having to find $500 an hour for a barrister to defend him in court. So when he says he can’t make rehearsals, you kind of have to believe him. He’s out there trying to make some money!”

Petkovic has recently loosened his grip on the orchestra’s reigns, inviting more input from members on its future. “It was really interesting for me to shut up and listen to everybody talk about love, representing their people, and being part of an inclusive Australia,” he says. “Somebody even said the orchestra is really peace in action. It emanates it just by its physical and visual diversity – not to mention the music.”

Watching the band rehearse in a natty Petersham studio is to marvel at the sheer heterogeneity. Although Petkovic plays leader for the sake of efficiency, he solicits ideas at every turn, so the music develops amid a warm collegiality.

He himself is a first-generation Australian of Croatian parents. He came to music late, using it to help resolve the identity issues common in migrant communities. After a stint playing rock he became involved in arts projects in western Sydney, the challenge being what he terms the “slow-burn” process of making these permeate further than those who are willing to engage with them.

Western Sydney may lack a reputation for glamour or hipness, but its big asset is this sheer diversity. “Look at these treasures that we have in front of us,” he says of his players. “All we need is to shine a light, and have the right attitude, and we can change the world.”