The number of concerts commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli has been somewhat overwhelming. I have been to five in as many weeks, and have been invited to a further four. While understandable, the theme has started to wear a little thin. The Uzunstein Chamber Orchestra’s commemorative offering, however, was uniquely intriguing.

The makeup of the Sydney-based group was the first surprise: two violins, a Russian mandolin called a domra, a classical guitar, and a cello. Rather small for an orchestra but astonishingly cohesive. Much of the music, too, was novel. The works were generally either composed or arranged by the Orchestra’s director and guitarist, Giga Jeleskovic, and were interesting and at times compelling, if not always entirely successful. There was also, I suspect, some attempt to combine music and visual art. The National Portrait Gallery, which played host to the concert, is currently showing All That Fall: Sacrifice, Life, & Loss in the First World War. I suspect concertgoers were meant to view the exhibition and then take in the show. However, the lack of cross-promotion, integrated tours, and the late start of the concert made this unlikely.

The performance was bookended by the eponymous piece Once, Our Comrades. This was, sadly, the least successful of Jeleskovic’s compositions. Repetitive and monotonous, it did little to engage despite its novel, distinctly Slavic approach to the music of war. Here, too, began a number of niggling technical issues that persisted throughout the performance: the guitar was always too quiet in the mix, togetherness at the ends of phrases was lacking, the tuning between the violins was not all it should have been, and there was too little dynamic variation. The upper strings in particular seemed averse to playing from the nut. However, the execution was generally competent. Of particular note was the interplay between the masterful Stephen Lalor on domra and the bucolic basslines of Harry Werlemann-Godfrey on cello.

The second work, also by Jeleskovic, was more engaging. A haunting tonal lament, entitled Elegy: Memento it displayed a range of influences, from the gypsy music of his homeland to 20s swing. I was even put in mind of Anne Dudley’s excellent theme to the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster. I was only disappointed by the lack of cimbalom. Better still was the third number, Silent Valley. Brutal and sweetly melancholy by turns the work had echoes of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartok, with a particular nod toward the latter’s string quartets and even seemingly a harmonic hat tip to Rubashevsky’s concerto for violin, big band and orchestra. Both works were worthwhile, yet they suffer from fragmentation, with a failure to elaborate and integrate motifs.

The rest of the performance was of works arranged by Jeleskovic. A nicely arranged and competently executed Theme from Schindler’s List tugged tritely on the heart strings, and was followed by the traditional Hero’s Farewell, and a rather fun Tuzno Kolo (Sad Dance), which suffered only from the lack of bounce in the first violin and was lifted up by some excellent solo work from Stephen Lalor. The Dove was too long and rather uninteresting, though certainly continued the gloomy tone. However, with the subsequent March by Handel the tone was abandoned. Admittedly, the lead violin was a little stolid, but the March itself is a bouncy, gay affair and seemingly unrelated to the ‘tragedy and pathos of war’. Franck’s Panis Angelicus was dealt with far too perfunctorily, and would have benefited from a more appropriate context.

The final three pieces on the programme – Lili Marlene, The Internationale, and Land of Hope and Glory seem to be an attempt to reflect the popular music of the period, if an odd one. The arrangements of these were fine, though the bass line in The Internationale could have been souped up a touch and it lacked the scalic flourish at the end of the tune. However, the performances were lacklustre. The violins played as though they had never heard the songs sung before. Lili Marlene was trudging except for Lalor’s cheeky domra, The Internationale lacked the passion and strength needed for the great revolutionary anthem, and Land of Hope and Glory was neither hopeful nor glorious. The group concluded with a traditional gypsy encore played by a trio of cello, domra, and guitar. It was by far the highlight of the show. Fun for both players and audience.

All in all it was a very strange concert. The original works were interesting and at times compelling, the performances were by and large fine, and some of the arrangements were excellent. However, the theme was ultimately confused and the performances were not strong enough to make up for it. I would be very interested to see this group play a concert with a less sombre theme and confected programme, and to hear new works by the obviously talented Jeleskovic where he has the space to expand on his ideas and rejoice in his cultural heritage. As it stands this concert, I suspect, did not show the group in their best light.