In a departure from more traditional programming, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s latest outing – Ottoman Baroque – took its Melbourne audience on a mesmerizing journey into the mystical world of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic, and the ancient music of the Early Ottoman Empire. In a cleverly curated program by ABO Artistic Director Paul Dyer, the audience was treated to two contrasting musical “ceremonies”.
The first half featured a pasticcio curated by Dyer, inspired by the fusion of ancient music of Türkiye with more contemporary choral interpretations of one of Rumi’s most evocative poems, This Marriage (originally written in Farsi in the 13th century). In the second half, the concert culminated with a traditional Mevlevi Sema Ceremony, a ritualistic meditation practice performed by the Whirling Dervishes (Semazen) under the watchful eye of Sheikh Abdurrahman Nedim Karnibüyükler.
With a striking lighting design by Alexander Berlage and a series of intricately carved dark turquoise wooden partitions providing a nod to the architecture of the Early Ottoman period, the concert began with the first of several short instrumental collaborations between Dyer on a beautiful Ottavino (a rare type of miniature harpsichord with a high and penetrating timbre) and a number of ABO core members: Matthew Bruce (period violin), Ben Dollman (viola d’amore), Monique O’Dea (period viola), Jamie Gey (period cello), Melissa Farrow (period flute), Brian Nixon (period percussion) and Nicholas Pollock (theorbo and Gallichon). They were joined on stage by traditional musicians of Turkiye, comprising Serhet Sarpel and Selim Oztas (voice), Refic Hakan Talu (tanbur, an ancient form of long-necked lute), Aytac Ergen (kudum, a tiny pair of tuned kettle drums made of animal skin and wood), Ugur Onuk (ney, a traditional reed flute) and Sydney-based Tarik Hussein (kanun, a type of plucked zither). A series of short instrumental works by Ali Ufki, and Kemani Kevser Hanim were interpolated with three settings of Rami’s timeless love poem This Marriage (the words of which were famously performed at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011).
The first of three new works commissioned by Dyer for this concert was a new choral setting by Australian composer Joe Twist. Written in 8 parts, Twist’s This Marriage is an elegant and tranquil work, featuring long and carefully interwoven vocal lines, luscious harmony and effective use of gentle dissonance. It made for a perfect introduction to the poem, with each of the excellent Brandenburg Choir’s eight singers performing with exemplary diction, a heavenly vocal blend and carefully nuanced balance from start to finish. Dressed in long flowing shirts of sparkling Emerald Green and Black, and white trousers, the singers instantly transported the audience to a place of great mystical beauty. In his brief introductory notes on the work, Twist wrote: “It is my hope that this music offers listeners a contemplative, meditative experience that reflects the universality and timelessness of love and marriage in all its forms”.
A series of subtle chimes and bowed crotales created a quasi-ceremonial atmosphere, with the singers slowly processing off the stage as the instrumental ensemble assembled behind them began a series of calming instrumental interludes by Hugh Ronzani. Taksim 1 and Taksim 2 both featured distinct modes. Driven by Dyer’s Ottavino, and featuring subtle solos from various hand drums, recorders and flutes, there was conversational effect between the Eastern ney, and the Western flute, and then between the viola d’amore, with the ABO’s Ben Dollman briefly taking the spotlight in a beguiling solo that cleverly melded the sound of the western orchestra with the more unfamiliar sounds of the ancient instruments of Türkiye. Quasi improvisational in feel, the music provided a sense of calm and antiquity.
The second choral offering came in the form of Eric Whitacre’s setting of This Marriage. Since embarking on his professional career in 1997, Whitacre has become arguably one of the most popular choral figures of the present day, and this simple and delicate setting of Rumi’s poem marked the first time that he had written for four-part a cappella chorus without divisi. Again, the Brandenburg octet of singers was up to the task, with a beautifully controlled performance that again highlighted their warmth of tone and excellent intonation.
Ed Newton-Rex’s setting of This Marriage, first recorded to mark the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, was in many ways quite similar to the other two settings on offer, relying on slow elegant phrases, exquisite harmony and uncluttered writing to convey the text clearly. The semi-iridescent lighting, which covered the stage in its hazy blue/green glow, contrasted with the gentle warmth of the light radiating from the large chandelier above the stage, creating an ideal atmosphere for these choral works. The sparkling cloth worn by the singers twinkled like stars in a moonlit sky, and the soaring voices of sopranos Astrid Girdis and Clare Macpherson provided an equally pleasing sonic equivalent in this gentle yet radiant setting.
You would be hard pressed to find a more beautifully balanced ensemble of singers anywhere in this country than the eight members of the Brandenburg Choir who participated in this performance. Apart from the crystalline sopranos of Girdis and Macpherson, there was a lovely warmth of sound from both alto Michael Burden and bass Jesse van Proctor, which balanced nicely with the lighter timbres of Sebastian Maury’s pleasing baritone and Jonathan Borg’s light and sensitive tenor.
Bringing the first half of the concert to a close was traditional Ottoman music in the form of Ali Ufki’s Buselik Makam Pesrev, followed by a reprise of Nihavend Longa, arranged by Hugh Ronzani, a simple tune arranged cleverly for a small ensemble of both western and traditional eastern instruments.
In a rare appearance in Australia, the concert concluded with the Whirling Dervishes (semazens) spinning gracefully on the stage in a unique Sufi ceremony that dates back to the 13th century. The symbolic ritual of the Sema features the semazens whirling in a circle around their sheikh. They whirl using one foot to propel themselves in a counter-clockwise motion, whilst their other foot remains rooted to the floor acting as an axis about which the semazen turns. Both arms are extended and raised to the level of the head, with the right palm pointing upward (to receive Divine grace) and the left palm pointing downward (to channel that grace back down to the world).
The semazens entered in darkness, wearing long black cloaks (symbolizing death), which they removed before whirling. On their heads they wore tall, brown camel hair hats known as sikke, (symbolising the tombstone and the death of the ego). Once their cloaks were removed, their long white robes and white jackets were exposed. Both are symbols of resurrection.
After a solo chanter offered a eulogy to the Prophet Muhammad, the ceremony began with an improvisation on the Ney (an ancient form of reed flute). In Sufi culture, this recorder-like instrument symbolises the “Divine breath” that gives life to everything. The semazens began walking slowly and rhythmically to the music, and after slapping the ground forcefully they made a circle in single file around the stage three times, bowing first to the semazen in front of them, and then to the semazen behind them as they each removed their black cloaks and began spinning in a circular motion.
The ceremony concluded with a short recitation from the Quran, before the Dervishes departed, and the audience were invited to depart in silence and without applause.
This was a hypnotic and soul-healing experience, with a fascinating account of both an ancient musical and mystical tradition of meditation placed into an appropriate context with reverence and affection in this latest offering from the ABO and the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi Mevlevi Order from Konya, Türkiye.
Photo credit Laura Manariti.
Andrew Wailes reviewed “Ottoman Baroque” with the whirling dervishes, presented by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, on Thursday, 14 July 2023.