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Viewpoint: The Australian World Orchestra 2021

by Heather Leviston

What a party-pooper the COVID-19 virus continues to be. Considering the ravages endured around the world, it may seem ungrateful to lament the absence of the Australian World Orchestra – again – from lockdown Melbourne, but the 10th birthday of this significant part of Australia’s musical life is an Occasion. We were also looking forward to AWO’s delayed celebration of the Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. Thanks to live-streaming via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, virtual attendance was made possible – and not only for Victorians.

As it was, compromises for this year’s iteration were in place well before AWO’s first performance in Canberra. Although a number of Melbourne musicians were able to escape the lockdown, Australia’s border restrictions meant that most musicians currently playing in overseas orchestras were unable to participate; furthermore, the closure of the Sydney Opera House for renovations led to stage space limitations in the choice of the smaller City Recital Hall, Angel Place venue.

We were eager to hear the première of the featured work, Paul Dean’s Symphony, albeit in a somewhat pared back form. It is incredible that this is only symphony commissioned by a major Australian orchestra, as is claimed. Once AWO’s Founder, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Alexander Briger, had settled on Schumann’s Second Symphony as part of the program, he asked Dean to compose something within that instrumentation. Initially envisaging a work called Symphonic Requiem for a Dying Planet, as a response to the catastrophic effects of climate change and a lack of urgency to protect our environment, the symphony gradually evolved into an intense forty-minute evocation of nature on the brink of destruction.

Symphony began with the softest background of sustained string sound initiated by the violas, punctuated by mysterious birdcalls from wind instruments, some placed around the auditorium with the camera focusing on the balcony flute. Increasing volume and pace led to solo woodwind passages until the viola section brought the movement to a gentle close. The second movement was in stark contrast – an ominously chugging locomotive urgency as the juggernaut of climate change appeared. I found it impossible not to think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when listening to the way Dean used string attack and death knell timpani. It was as though the earth had become the Sacrificial Maiden to relentless “progress”. A mournful horn note came during the climax and a brief note of protest from the flute followed the sudden decrescendo. Although the audience habitually applauded at the end of movements, the overwhelming tension generated made such a response understandable. Although the third movement began in a quieter, more lyrical way with interweaving woodwind voices featuring the bassoon, quiet pedal notes of trombones and muted trumpets in slow progression, the intensity gradually grew once again. The melancholy underpinning of strings developed into an uneasy equilibrium, building with the lower strings until a climactic outburst by brass and timpani that came to an abrupt halt. An oboe song of yearning was followed by a further increase in tortured romantic power with strings in full cry. Again, an onslaught of brass, and timpani thuds of doom sounded as though the end was nigh. Receding timpani and tentative birdsong from winds and a pianissimo piccolo understandably led many in an applauding audience to think that this was the end of the movement. A short hiatus led to some of the most colourful writing in the symphony as momentum gathered to end in a crescendo of organized chaos brought to a definitive halt by the timpanist. The final movement followed a similar trajectory, the quiet, rumbling opening building and receding, waves of urgency, some beautiful solo work from oboe and clarinet, a climax for full orchestra and, receding hammer blows from the timpani, trilling winds and one big final crescendo to top it off. It came as no surprise that the timpanist was accorded the most applause as sections of the orchestra were acknowledged, but it was the orchestra as a whole that was given the biggest cheer. Paul Dean himself was also given an enthusiastic reception, and he appeared to be thrilled with what the orchestra had delivered under Alexander Briger’s vigilant, sympathetic guidance.

If Dean’s Symphony seemed to manifest connections with Stravinsky’s orchestral choices and Messiaen’s use of birdsong (AWO had performed, respectively, Rite of Spring in 2013 and Turangalîla-Symphonie in 2017) he is in good company. Perhaps it is inevitable that earlier great classical music will seep its way into the DNA of performer composers by unconscious osmosis. The links are plain in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. His references to Bach and Beethoven are plain, and this symphony was an inspired choice on the part of Briger. The concert began with a wonderfully crisp and well-shaped reading of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and reached a joyous conclusion with Schumann’s reworking of a key quotation from Beethoven’s superb song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Brilliant. By the end of the Schumann, any qualms that this might be a disappointing AWO-lite were thoroughly dispelled.

It was also gratifying to see the young musicians from the Regional Youth Orchestra NSW join their AWO tutors on stage after interval for Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Some lively, disciplined playing resulted from this important part of a long-standing relationship between the two organisations. It was certainly worth the rearrangement of the stage in preparation for the Schumann.

Doubtless, Dean’s Symphony will be heard in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall in the expanded form it cries out for some time in the not to far distant future, when COVID restrictions are lifted and we are able to meet internationally with an even greater appreciation of what we value – socially and environmentally.

Photo supplied: AWO’s double bass player Robert Nairn (former Juilliard) tutoring some of the RYO students in preparation for the evening concert

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Heather Leviston viewed the performance given by the Australian World Orchestra and streamed via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney on June 3, 2021.

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