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Australian World Orchestra

by Peter Hurley

A once a year event, now in its ninth year, the brief concert season of the Australian World Orchestra is a celebration of Australian achievement on the world stage. Musicians from some of the great orchestras of the world – having originated, trained and performed in Australia – return once a year to play together bringing the sum total of their experiences to each other and a most rapturous audience. When Sir Simon Rattle states that the Australian World Orchestra is “one of the great orchestras in the world”, we know that we have something very special indeed: a national treasure.

This year, the Australian World Orchestra was led by the man who inaugurated the project, conductor Alexander Briger AO, whose international career is already outstanding. Briger continues the legacy of his conductor uncle, the late Sir Charles Mackerras.

The works presented showed contrast – reading the program beforehand gave a frisson of wonder at the range of styles and intensity to be presented. However, will this play out as a concert? The three works appear to have nothing in common and are driven by quite different, even conflicting, aesthetics. Of course, the scale and qualities of the compositions themselves also provided much to anticipate, and there is the further consideration of how these works will be read in this space tonight – an experience never to be repeated.

Nigel Westlake’s Flying Dream is a work based on his score for the 2015 film Paper Planes. The work is a myriad of colours and gestures evoking all the movement, emotions and drama of the film. In concert, the sounds whirl around the orchestra in the most wonderful sensation of being inside the action. A very large lollypop with an endless variety of surprising flavours, it would be easy to be carried away with the contrasts and capriciousness of the piece, but Briger’s conducting kept it all disciplined to a tight rein, the tension between the structure beneath and the elements noted above held in balance.

Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra is a tone poem based on a most bloody and morally ambiguous story. This piece is driven by the narrative of Gogol’s history fantasy novella about Cossacks – a work that has had film adaptations. The music could almost serve as the sound track to a film, so direct is the relationship between the music and the action, but of course the musical motifs actually take the place of the actors, representing action directly. It was very easy to close the eyes and let the music create the film in my mind. The violence of the story went right through the body. Once again, Briger kept a very

tight control of the structural elements, while never holding back on the thrilling dramatic content.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 43 in four movements is a fascinating work; his structural approach leads to reflection on the development of relationships of the various motifs, only finally coming to full fruition in the last movement, yet there is so much that evokes atmosphere throughout, that a level of depiction seems impossible to disregard. As large as the scale of the work is, and as disparate as some of the material appears to be on first hearing, it is the inevitability of structure drawing it all together that made hearing it such a deeply satisfying experience.

In a way, this was a metaphor for the approach Briger took to all of the works – his combination of warmth for the moment with a taut discipline for the structures was clearly appreciated by the orchestra, and gave the whole evening a wonderful cohesion. There was courageous programing here – works outside of popular appeal brought together for their musical depth – depths of quality and vision relished by both the orchestra, and an extremely appreciative audience.

On another level, it ought to be a source of great national pride that the visionaries who set up institutions such as the Victorian College of the Arts and the Australian National Academy of Music truly provided the long term means for Australia to take a proud place in the international music scene at the highest levels. May such long-term visionaries prevail.

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Peter Hurley reviewed the Australian World Orchestra’s concert given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on July 26, 2019.

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Australian World Orchestra

by Heather Leviston

According to conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the Australian World Orchestra is one of the great orchestras of the world and an “international treasure”. As Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the supreme Berliner Phiharmoniker since 2002, he should know.

On Saturday night (August 1) the AWO’s concert in Hamer Hall was a sellout with the capacity audience keen to hear 95 of Australia’s best musicians from the finest local and overseas orchestras under the baton of one of the world’s greatest conductors. A program comprising Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune, Brett Dean’s orchestrated setting of Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, featuring celebrated mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony promised a rare musical banquet. But Sir Simon’s solitary entry on stage before the arrival of the orchestra signaled a change of plan.

In his most gallant and consoling manner he announced that both he and his wife had been laid low by the flu due to the combined “affection and infection” of their thirteen-month-old child. With the help of a podium stool he felt able to conduct, but it was literally impossible for his wife to sing with laryngitis. He also pointed out that Bruckner’s symphony is such a monumental work that it is often performed as the sole item on the program.

Those of us who had been glued to the ABC FM broadcast of the concert the previous night were thankful that we had at least enjoyed the beauty of Kožená’s voice and Brett Dean’s inspired orchestration at one remove. But there is nothing like being there. Perhaps we can hope for a return visit in the near future. At least there is no doubt that Brett Dean’s version of Debussy’s song cycle will find its way into mainstream concert programming.

A superb reading of the remaining Debussy work began with relaxed, spacious phrases that slowed the heart-rate and conjured up an afternoon of sensuous warmth – doubly welcome on a cold winter evening in Melbourne. Great waves of full, rich string tone and glowing brass alternated with the clear, supple lines of Alison Mitchell’s flute. The audience may have been a little concerned about the kiss bestowed on her by the ailing conductor, but she certainly deserved the accolade.

What most people had come to hear was the AWO tackle a majestic symphony that calls upon the resources of a first-rate conductor and orchestra to do it justice. Anybody who had heard the Melbourne performances under Maestro Zubin Mehta two years ago anticipated that this one would be exceptional and, given the superlatives heaped on their Sydney Opera House performances, expectations were very high. What they found was a conductor with a profound understanding of symphonic proportion and balance and an orchestra that has grown from strength to strength over its three incarnations.

Unlike Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Mahler’s First Symphony, there was a modest lineup of percussion. A set of four timpani, (played to huge effect by London Symphony Orchestra’s Co-Principal, Tony Bedewi) and the most sparing but dramatic use of cymbals and triangle were all that were needed to consolidate the overwhelming power of Bruckner’s creation.

Swinging from moments of delicacy to mounting crescendos of orchestral force as block after block built in layers of arching tone, it was easy to see why this work is so often described in terms of a Gothic cathedral. With a conductor so attuned to its monumental architecture and sensitive to the more ethereal aspects of the work, the strengths of the composer’s conception and the players’ skills were displayed to best advantage. This could have been an orchestra expressly designed to play Bruckner.

Brilliant playing across the board and the many outstanding contributions from the four horns and four Wagner tubas were central to the success of this performance. Luxuriant string tone alternating with whispers of translucent pianissimos and ravishing repeated passages where violas joined with cellos in full-throated harmony for the wondrous Adagio were simply unforgettable. In the Finale, an orchestral juggernaut powered by the timpani and weighty brass contrasted with the delicacy of flute coupled with oboe and a cello section glorious in its rich expressiveness. All were part of unexpected and continually shifting moods, which found resolution in an uplifting climax.

Although he had the option of being seated for this performance, Sir Simon spent most of it on his feet and showed no sign of feeling below par as he guided his forces with his customary astute use of movement and absence of a score. Judging from the enthusiastic response that greeted the conclusion of this electrifying performance, nobody will be asking for a refund.

A very personal dimension to this series of concerts came in the form of a tribute to violist, the late John Lynch (formerly Associate Principal Viola, RTE National Symphony of Ireland). He would have been honoured by having the series dedicated to him and very touched by the heart-felt words of his friend and colleague Anne Harvey-Nagl (Concertmaster, Volksoper Vienna), which were printed in the program. Several of John’s other friends from his days at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, who had played with him in a previous AWO concert, were also playing in this concert. Miki Tsunoda (Principal 2nd Violin Royal Flemish Philharmonic) had studied with him in Budapest as part of the Binneas Quartet.

In fact, there was quite a lineup of ex-VCASS students in this assembly: Simon Fordham (Principal 2nd Violin, Munich Philharmonic), Patrick Savage (former Principal 1st Violin, Royal Philharmonic), Melinda Watzel (Principal 2nd Violin, Komische Oper Berlin), Fiona Sargeant (Associate Principal, Melbourne Symphony), Rachel Silver (horn, Sydney Symphony) Marshall McGuire (renowned harpist and Head of Artistic Planning at the Melbourne Recital Centre) plus the only non-Faculty representative of the Australian National Academy of Music and the Australian Youth Orchestra, harpist Melina van Leeuwen. There is something to be said for a Victorian government school that can produce players who can hold their own with the best in the world.

The importance placed on nurturing Australia’s future orchestral players can be seen in the mentoring role that members of the AWO have undertaken with musicians from the Australian Youth Orchestra in the course of preparing for these concerts. This would have been a project particularly close to the hearts of those who had taken a career route via the AYO.

Australians can be proud that so many leading players from major orchestras of Britain, America, Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Australia have their roots in Australia. Alexander Briger’s visionary initiative must surely have exceeded his expectations to see the Australian World Orchestra acting as a cultural ambassador in the upcoming tour of India at the invitation of Maestro Mehta. As both legendary conductors have been keen to remind us, the AWO is something to be treasured.

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