Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra

Q Theatre, September 10


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Larissa Kovalchuk. Photo: Damon Amb.

Remember going to a restaurant where the food is “foreign”, and then a morsel of this and a taste of that swiftly converts you? The Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra might be like that for many ears, but its greatest asset is its sheer exoticism, and the more it highlights that the better it sounds.

Director Richard Petkovic has assembled 11 Sydney musicians of Indigenous, Chinese, Croatian, Ghanian, Uygur, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Iranian and Ambonese-Australian backgrounds. The idea was not just to make collaborative art, but to celebrate Australian multiculturalism and cultural interaction in general.

This worthy conception has resulted in music that could be overtly cross-cultural (and sometimes collectively created) or that had the ensemble supporting a featured player presenting his or her traditional culture. Both formats held their fascination, although the most transporting moments tended to come from the latter.

Mongolia’s Bukhu Ganburged makes one confront one’s perceptions of the possible. While his emotive bowing of the two-string horse-fiddle would be wonder enough, it is his throat singing and the ability to generate overtones simultaneously with fundamental pitches that messes with the mind. With few artists – even others from Mongolia – is there such scant correlation between watching the process and listening to the outcome.

Ukraine’s Larissa Kovalchuk also defies expectations. She played the luminous-toned bandura (imagine a zither crossed with a lute), over which she unleashed a mezzo-soprano voice of incisive power and beauty. Shohrat Tursun, a Uyghur, played the dutar (two-string lute) and sang with a majesty and rawness akin to that of flamenco vocalists, and bassist Jonathan Nanlohy (Ambon/Australia) delivered a poignant spoken-word piece about turning away from his father’s traditions.

Unfortunately the ensemble also felt obliged to try to increase its appeal with English-language pop anthems that suffered from bald lyrics and bland music and performances. It should revel in what sets it apart, not patronise its audiences with populism. I Am and River were like Eurovision songs, when something much deeper was on offer.