Alexander Briger: Australian World Orchestra

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Published: 27th April, 2018

The Australian World Orchestra is soon to make its annual visit to Melbourne and Sydney, with a punishing schedule, if you count international travel as a necessary part of the equation for many players. Alexander Briger AO, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the AWO, explained the workings of this unique orchestra to Classic Melbourne editor, Suzanne Yanko.

“It’s a large orchestra … It’s made up of wonderful, wonderful Australian musicians who are playing (in orchestras) all around the world” he says, tossing off an impressive list of names, including the Berlin, Vienna,  New York, and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras; the London Symphony Orchestra, and more. The musicians meet their counterparts from Australian state orchestras, like the Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestras, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s past and present concertmasters, Wilma Smith and Dale Barltrop, both contributing their expertise last year and coming back for more this time.

The orchestra numbers more than 80 members, about half of them expatriate. Not only is this a chance for them to catch up socially with family and friends at home, it offers a rare opportunity to be heard. In at least one case it was the first time a mother heard her son play with a full orchestra.

“We come together once a year, with a week of rehearsals then concerts at the end”, Briger explains.

Just one week?

Briger assures me that’s correct. “It seems to have fallen into the same pattern: they all fly in on Saturday or Sunday morning, rehearse on Sunday night. There are two rehearsals on Monday and two on Tuesday, the general performance on Wednesday morning and first concert Wednesday night.”

Briger is proud that his orchestra is so good that they often don’t even need all the rehearsal time.

“When we did the Bruckner Eight with Sir Simon Rattle, we didn’t use the last rehearsal, just performed it. Same with Mehta with the Mahler First and The Rite of Spring. He cancelled the last rehearsal, saying ‘It’s perfect now. Nothing else to do to it.’

“So, it comes together very, very fast. I’m always incredibly impressed with how fast it all comes together.

“In India (on tour with Zubin Mehta) we did two different programs but rehearsed all in two days! I was very nervous about that, but Mehta was the one who said, ‘Don’t worry, with this orchestra it won’t be a problem’.

“And he was right; it came together instantaneously.

“It’s a tribute to good musicians. These musicians know these works so well…it’s a matter of consolidating interpretation and sound, working on certain small little bits, but it’s no problem at all,” says Briger proudly.

Conductor Zubin Mehta’s involvement with the orchestra has clearly been pivotal. Not long after its first performances in 2011 (with conductors Briger, Simone Young, and Brett Dean as  early influences) “in 2013 we were lucky enough to secure the services of Zubin Mehta”, Briger enthuses. “It was phenomenal.”

“He was kind to me when I was first starting,” Briger states. “He took us on; he loved the orchestra. He called the AWO ‘one of the top ten orchestras on earth.’ The AWO had a very special tour to India in 2015, the first Australian orchestra to do so. We’re going back again this year.”

“My funniest Mehta story,” Briger continues. ”When Mehta came out, [we learned] his passion other than orchestra is cricket. Cricket, cricket, cricket. So the first time I ever met him, the first thing he spoke about was cricket. He was always ringing up Simone Young, who is also mad about cricket, and I thought what would be really touching to him, would be to organise an afternoon tea with Australian cricketers. I was able to organize a very private one with Steve Waugh and Brett Lee.

“At the tea, Zubin couldn’t talk! He Waugh and Lee gave him some cricket memorabilia and Mehta was was like a little boy with his heroes! Of course, they (Waugh and Lee) are very big in India; that’s why we did it. They have foundations there for children from the slums, so we wanted Zubin to help and connect with people who could help. It was very good in that respect.

“And afterwards, we had a rehearsal and Mehta said ‘You’re the only orchestra that will understand this. I’m so emotional I don’t know if I can conduct today; you see, I’ve just had lunch with Steve Waugh and Brett Lee!’

“And the whole orchestra just burst into tears of laughter and applauded!”

It seems the AWO’s collective sense of humour is legendary. Briger is proud that the Australians in the Berlin Philharmonic say there’s no difference between the AWO and the BPO except the sense of humour.

Sir Simon Rattle remarked: “At last an orchestra that understands my sense of humour”.

“The AWO does love to laugh” says Briger. “And these men [the conductors] are extremely funny, they become very full and lush. and they love telling stories”.

Perhaps this sense of fun comes out of the fact that an overwhelming 97% of players were previously in the Australian Youth Orchestra, earning their current orchestra the title “the AYO with Wrinkles.” One of their number, Simon Fordham, Principal 2nd Violin – Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, sums it up well on the AWO website:

“AYO and National Music Camp rolled into one, at the ripe old age of 45! What fun!”

How does it feel to hand over your precious orchestra to other conductors?

“I don’t mind it at all. I love it. The musicians love it. When it’s the likes of these conductors – Mehta, Rattle, and Muti — and it’s been very helpful to me; Zubin sees me conducting, and he liked what he saw, and invited me to conduct the Israel Philharmonic. That was a great thrill for me. Went for two and a half weeks of work, six concerts with the IPO, and then he invited me to Naples. Rattle has been very kind to me. I was so happy when he said “yes” to coming out here to the AWO. Like Mehta, he has only incredible things to say. ‘National treasure …There aren’t many great orchestras on earth, but the AWO is definitely one of them.’ He had such a wonderful time. The standard of the orchestra is just so high.”

It’s a great tribute to the AWO. How do you pick the conductors? Why Muti?

“It is my ambition to land the top 5-10 conductors on earth, by popularity. Particularly the ones who have never conducted in Australia before. The ones that have toured with us with their own orchestras, but never come back and conducted our own. Getting conductors to come see Australia we say, ‘Come and experience it with people you don’t know as well (from your own orchestra), that you might not otherwise know, in our beautiful country, and we’ll show you a lovely time and a lovely festival feel’. Thankfully, they’ve all said yes!

“To me, Muti is really in the top 5. As far as Spain is concerned, he’s definitely in the top 5. And he’s a remarkable human being. He/all are so incredibly charismatic. It’s hard to put into words … with Mehta, he’s sort of Zen-like. Rattle had charisma through his gift for the English language. He’s so interesting to listen to. Everything he says is so inspirational, with the right words. The AWO can ‘lasso galaxies’, he said.

“Muti is so charismatic but his charisma is completely different; he is so inspirational, but he has that real Italian blood in him. He commands respect; when he walks out on stage, everyone is in awe.  All musicians are in awe of him. We all look up to him so much. He’s so relaxed.   Of course, he’s got his own interpretation. He commands total respect and has a beautiful technique. Very relaxing, very florid. Such power from his hands and face. Beautiful technique. It’s like watching a fine horse at a gallop.”

“He’s also very funny.”

 Like Toscanini?

“I don’t think Toscanini had a sense of humour, whereas Muti is very, very funny. I don’t know whether he means to be funny, but he is! He loves to make the orchestra laugh, because he smiles himself. “

Briger outlines plans to entertain Muti while in Australia. The AWO will take him on a Sydney harbor cruise to lunch and a meeting with designer Carla Zampatti to highlight Italian culture in Australia.

“Like Mehta, he likes to be surrounded by musicians he knows very well, so we’ve invited some who play with the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. He’s very patriotic, and we wanted to show him how the Italian culture is very alive. He doesn’t really know Australia; he’s been here for one night. This time he gets to really appreciate it.”

He was made an Honorary Citizen of Sydney after just one day!

“He was! He’s also a Papal Knight and has been knighted by the Queen. Accolades throughout the world. It’s just wonderful.

“But we’re an ensemble. Not just musicians but management. Incredibly proud that Muti is taking time to come all the way here. It’s a big trip!   We show these men and women the best possible time musically as well. If the conductors want to go over time, we let them! We’ll be behind them 100% through to the very last night.

“We revere them; there’s never issues with egos in AWO. All left at the door, and that’s very unusual for any orchestra on earth. There’s always some ego, but not here. It’s really lovely.”

I’m intrigued about one other thing. You meet for only one week. What do you do with the rest of your time?

Briger laughs. “Conduct interviews. I’m there for the conductors. I make sure the conductors are happy, that they’re comfortable, … there are always some issues we have to deal with (someone getting sick, string breaking, etc.) We go over and beyond what any other orchestra really would do. For example, we make sure that everyone is picked up from the airport. That never happens [elsewhere]. Regardless of what time they land, there is someone there specifically to pick them up, drive them to the hotel, and make sure they’re checked in. There’s a lot of that stuff… there’s after parties…

“There will be a beautiful event happening at the Admiralty House here, where the Governor General is hosting a party in honour of Maestro Muti. It’s having to do with sponsors, speeches, all of those things.   That’s what we get up to throughout the week. Making sure it runs smoothly. You’d be surprised how things come up. The AWO team is small (five or six of us, compared to other orchestras’ having 30 or 40) but incredibly dedicated and excited when the orchestra lands.

A final question about the repertoire. The orchestra is performing two symphonies: Brahms Second and Tchaikovsky Fourth. Whose was the final choice? Yours or Muti’s?

 Briger answers without hesitation.The conductor’s. I wrote to him with some suggestions. A couple of them he said no to. When it comes to great conductors, I like to tailor it to them. I know, because I’m a conductor, myself, and growing up listening to their recordings, I know what their specialities are.

“And I don’t want them to … Some people queried (in my opinion, ridiculously): why don’t you have them conducting Australian works, and I say, Why would I bring Maestro Muti all the way here to play Sculthorpe, for example? What would be the point? He doesn’t know it, and he’s never heard it.

“I want to bring him out here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of what he’s famous for. I want him to conduct what he’s well-known for. Simone, we got her out here last year to do the Turangalili Symphony. Bold move, but she’s so good at it, and she loved it. Right down her alley. It worked really really well.

“And Muti does Tchaikovsky Four really well. They love it when he does T4.   His Brahms is very Viennese. He knows how to get that beautiful deep sound out that I really love in Brahms. And there is some Verdi. He’s the greatest living Verdi conductor. We couldn’t bring him all the way out to Australia and not do something from Verdi. You’ll have to come to the concert to see which one!

What should the audience expect to find in these concerts?

“We’re all here to play together, to make the best possible orchestra, to show it off, we’re incredibly proud to have a wonderful week as friends not having seen each other for so long, and the tears and hugs … we’re just there to make great, great music for one week. Showing off for one week, and inspiring these conductors to fall in love and realise, wow, these Australian musicians are the best in the world. And we really are.”

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 Suzanne Yanko interviewed Alexander Briger AO, AWO Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, on 23 April 2018

 The Australian World Orchestra plays in Melbourne on May 5, following two concerts in Sydney on May 2 and 4.