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