A trying journey

KARAKORUM: A MEDIEVAL MUSICAL JOURNEY

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

This night began with a bang: a haunting, rhapsodic troubadour song in Occitan, the vocal line soaring over a single bass-note support.  As a setting-up of this night’s structure, you could hardly ask for better.   But, from then on, the creative inspiration flagged and what we wound up experiencing failed to sustain this opening promise.

Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia founded by Genghis Khan, was the end-point of a two-year mission undertaken in 1253 by Franciscan monk William of Rubruck who was chosen to travel to that distant metropolis with the aim of converting the ruler, Mongke Khan (Genghis’s grandson) and as many other non-believers as he could.  Through the long journey, William recorded his impressions but made remarkably few converts.

This entertainment, devised by Cambodian-born Khai-Dong Luong, is a show-piece for the French ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime which specialises in music of the 12th and 13th centuries.  But La Camera does not just perform excerpts from this neglected trove: the ensemble puts its music into historical perspective; in this instance, following William’s travel routes to and from Mongolia.

La Camera brought six musicians to the Brandenburg party: singer Bruno Bonhoure, violinist/vocalist Mokrane Adlani, kamanche expert Martin Bauer, percussionist Michele Claude, vocalist and erhu player Yan Li, flute/hurdy-gurdy/cornamuse player Christophe Tellart.  Paul Dyer kept a low profile behind his chamber organ while his fellow-Brandenburgers were all strings:  violinists Shaun Lee-Chen, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, with bass violin Jamie Hey.  Helping the visiting singers along their paths were five male members of the ABO Choir.

Playing William, dressed in a Franciscan habit, Australian actor David Wenham recited a narrative which took us from Constantinople and back again (well, a tentative launch onto the return road) with a few dramatic frissons along the way.   He wasn’t amplified, which didn’t matter to those of us near the front, but might have proved irritating to patrons in the balcony because of the occasional volume drop at the end of sentences.

But, despite Wenham’s function as a focus for the Karakorum story, the night’s attention focused on Bonhoure, the Camera’s music director and, for all intents and purposes, the fulcrum of this concert’s action.  His voice featured in most of the works heard and his positioning on stage, allied with his physical movement, meant that he attracted your eyes and ears almost continuously.  Some relief came with a Mongolian chant sung by Yan Li and a Sufi one from Adlani, which provided a fine complement to Bonhoure’s opening troubadour song.

Most of this night’s music has been recorded by the Camera with only two extra items inserted for this tour: a Gregorian Credo which only lasted up to Et homo factus est; and a concluding Kyrgyzstan melody, With hearts high, to bring the monk’s odyssey to a rousing conclusion.

The projected duration of this concert was 80 minutes; in fact, it lasted for 100 and I was pretty tired by the end.   Yes, the narrative interludes had their moments, although Wenham gave little suggestion of character to William who presented as yet another naif like Diver Dan or Faramir.   But then, the actor was handicapped in his personification because the whole original exercise, devised by Louis IX, was doomed from the start: William himself was unprepared  –  he made so few converts because he didn’t speak any of the languages of the lands through which he travelled.   He preached, but who understood?

As for sustaining most of the vocal brunt of Karakorum, Bonhoure does not have a particularly interesting voice and, while agreeable enough, it remains one-dimensional, displaying little ability to change timbres.  After the initial beguiling Austorg d’Aurillac song, he opened the Sufi chant Loving the beauty of Layla with a counter-tenor falsetto, articulating lots of same-note phrases in this lover’s plaint while the ABO vocal quintet gave him a monosyllabic drone support.  This sounded mildly exotic yet  bland.  Another troubadour song passed by without much effect.  By contrast, in his vocal work, Adlani projected a less well-honed product but his vocalising sounded more convincing, possibly because he was not caught up in attracting attention which Bonhoure did to the point of irritation.

For a time, the Orient won out with some dance music that I believe might have been from the Urals but which could have come from any corner of the Mediterranean from Makre to Tunis and would not be notable or out-of-context today.  As William got more involved in his task, Bonhoure sang three Gregorian chants – Miserere mei, Deus, Vexilla regis (which was juxtaposed with a fine adhan from Adlani in a musically uncomfortable counterpoint), and Salve Regina.  This last was punctuated with violin interludes that pushed some catchy Oriental melismata into the ideological fray.

By which stage you had well and truly received the message that this night’s music was essaying a kind of East and West meld; first you get a bit of Gregorian, then you have a stretch of throbbing sinuousness.   So, really, not a melding but a comparison with the director and musical director wanting to interweave the two strands of material.  The Creed extract was followed by a substantial erhu solo before Yan Li’s Heart beating in the steppes Mongolian lyric (was it sung in Chinese?); what inevitably followed was another Gregorian block where the Ave Regina caelorum antiphon and the A solis ortus cardine hymn signified that William had reached Karakorum.

In Wenham’s narration, Mongke Khan’s court reception was alarming until William realised that the whole crowd was drunk.   Cue an erhu solo called Tang Tang (a Mongolian lyric) and a drinking song, at which point Bonhoure unleashed his inner Alexis Zorba; the over-acting here verged on Playschool obviousness.  After this bout of pagan happiness, it was back to business with the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence for Pentecost, Bonhoure working indefatigably over an instrumental Alberti bass with some vehement erhu commentary.

La Camera’s Claude enjoyed a solo spot here, her instrument sounding very like a tabla that had come tapping its way up from the south.  This led into Adlani’s Vision of the Beloved Sufi chant, a very welcome break from the prevailing regime although – not for the first time – the music itself began with an unexpectedly banal 4/4 pulse before altering to a more reassuring irregular pattern.  For all that, the actual vocal line recalled the free-ranging solid ululations of Umm Kulthum – which could be a testament to the unchanging nature of Arabic music over eight centuries.

The narrative’s climax came at a debate before Mongke Khan where each religion – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – asked and answered questions of each other.  Various members of both La Camera and the ABO took on the lines of the disputants while, in the background, the Sanskrit chant of Om mani padme hum served as a sustained underpinning, presenting a strange theological situation for William, his Nestorian co-religionists and the Muslims.  But, as the guru from Liverpool sang, let it be.

Bonhoure signified William’s going home by leading the Veni, veni Emmanuel hymn – two verses of it – before the Kyrgyzstan tune took over and Bonhoure did his best whirling dervish imitation.   Yes: sometimes you’ve got to forget all that theological malarkey and just have a good spin.

In this semi-staged diversion, Luong and Bonhoure seemed to be constrained by a limited view of the music relevant to the enterprise.   Without the two troubadour songs, the West was all Gregorian chant.   On the other hand, the tourist sound-track to Mongolia took in music from the Black Sea, the Urals, Mongolia itself, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Sufi and Buddhist chants and hymns.  Fine; although, in several instances, this Eastern music itself sounded alarmingly ‘modern’.

Despite all these reservations, I was in a clear minority because the Murdoch Hall audience exploded into an enthusiastic reception at the performance’s conclusion.  Mind you, I have a cynical theory that explains why every Mahler symphony is greeted with a standing ovation: audiences just want to get out of their seats.  But to my mind, in the Karakorum hegira, you had to wait for isolated moments that arrested your attention;  riveting music-making was pretty rare.

For the most part, the combined band worked through their tasks with aplomb and gravity.  Dyer’s organ was close to inaudible for most of the night, as was Bauer’s kamanche.   On the other hand, the erhu enjoyed dynamic prominence and Tellart’s piquant wind contributions enriched a good many string-drone passages.

Despite Dyer’s enthusiasm for La Camera’s work which led him to invite the ensemble to participate in this mixed-bag construct, I left the Recital Centre feeling flat and believing that the whole concept might have succeeded more if originality of structure and musical content had not been so hard to find.