For the third of this year’s Proms at … Cadogan Hall, we were treated to a solo recital from the oud virtuoso, Joseph Tawadros. Tawadros was born in Egypt, but grew up in Australia, and is now mostly based in London. Classically trained, he has taken the oud (the Arabic lute), into new genres and styles, whilst still respecting and drawing upon its 5000-year old traditions – in his own words, he strongly believes the oud “is capable of saying something in different genres and cultures”. He is clearly a highly accomplished musician, and his phenomenal virtuosity allows him to turn the oud into a Spanish guitar, a rock guitar and even a banjo, as well as showing off the instrument’s Arabic roots.

Joseph Tawadros © Daniel Sponair
Joseph Tawadros
© Daniel Sponair

Tawadros also does a fine line in comedy in his introductions. Artist David Shrigley has said “it’s difficult in the serious world of fine art to have a comic voice. People just find it really confusing: irony is one thing but outright comedy is another”. However, Tawadros’ comic interludes are genuinely entertaining and often revealing. His humour and self-deprecation are disarming, if occasionally in danger of asking us to take him less seriously, which would do him a great injustice. Yet he manages to gently challenge expectations of image, accent and culture, through his jokes about his own Australian accent, and he even treated us to brief versions of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia with added quartertones – surely a cheekily knowing challenge to their nationalistic, flag-waving associations. A vision in orange and black – apparently this was a debut for his latest, bright orange fez – his presence alone on the expansive Cadogan Hall stage, with only his beautiful oud to hide behind, was as captivating as his performance.

Yet there were moments of import and passion too, such as his introduction to Heal, in which he offered the audience the opportunity to reflect on those that have been important to us, and those that perhaps we have lost. He also included a plea for compassion for people who are “doing it tough” (struggling), both in this country and elsewhere. With this in mind, the repeated patterns and simple melody took on an especially meditative and contemplative quality, and the singing melody took on a particularly poignant, improvisatory feel, with Tawadros holding us in the extended silence at the end. He also said of his Permission to Evaporate, written following the death of both of his parents, that it invoked the feeling of wanting to escape the familiar following the loss of loved ones, and the sad, winding melody over a simple bass pattern, varied through repetition was indeed transcendent.  

From the opening improvisatory Taqasim Kord, through the haunting harmonics of Constellation, to the mournful, decorated rising and falling scales, building to a rocky bass riff and insistent strumming, before a final slow fade and slide in Work, its title drawn from a poem by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, Tawadros took us through a wide range of styles and techniques. Yet there is always a core of Arabic scales and harmonies in all his pieces. In Gare de l’Est, inspired by the bustling Paris station, there are blues and jazz inflections, and the rapid fingerwork and strumming almost sounds like a train at one point, but the Arabic roots of the music here can’t be mistaken. 

Jessica Wells, like Tawadros, grew up in Australia, having been born in Florida. The third new commission from a woman for this year’s BBC Proms at … Cadogan Hall, Well’s Rhapsody for solo oud followed on from previous work with Tawadros, orchestrating his recent Oud Concerto for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and working with him on the soundtrack for the film Ali’s Wedding. Her new piece, Rhapsody for Oud, was indeed rhapsodic, with fleeting moments of effect strung together in a loose but engaging way. A repeated pattern over a drone note, sliding chords, a faster rhythmic section, and note-bending harmonies build to a rapid flourish. Tawadros confessed afterwards to having played this faster than previously (achieving “a new PB!”), and the conclusion certainly had a frenetic, virtuosic feel. 

Tawadros introduced his encore, Bluegrass Nikriz, with an explanation of its combination of the blues and Arabic ‘nikriz’ scales, as ever with humour, and an amusing digression on the “theatre of music”. But the encore itself, from an album he recorded with banjo player Bela Fleck (Chameleons of the White Shadow), raised the energy levels with its new heights of virtuosity, lightening fingerwork and rhythmic strumming seamlessly switching between and blending bluegrass and Arabic music. A perfect conclusion to a performance that was all about challenging perceptions – of culture, identity and, of course, the oud itself. 

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