How the Australian World Orchestra snared the great Zubin Mehta for this year’s concerts.

On Friday, August 26, 2011, in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, 99 Australian musicians, all at the top of their game and representing over 46 world-class orchestras around the world, came together to perform the inaugural concert of the Australian World Orchestra. The audience experienced an orchestra of superb Australian musicians, most of whom they had either never seen or heard before. One of the main phrases that comes up when talking about the AWO is: “a first”. Obviously the 2011 season was a first in our history; but even before those first performances we were all thinking how we could take this to the next level.

The answer was simple: we needed to snare an “unobtainable” conductor. By “unobtainable”, I mean a conductor considered one of the Top Ten, or preferably the Top Five! One name kept recurring in our discussions – Zubin Mehta. But how to get him? This is where the AWO is special. We have so many Australian musicians playing with these conductors across the world, it becomes a matter of simply finding the right person to pop the question. Oboist Nick Deutsch knows Mehta through the Israel Philharmonic (of which Mehta is “Conductor for Life”) and was able to pitch the idea to him.

Mehta said, “I have one week free for the next five years. Take it or leave it.” We said we’d take it. Mehta is renowned for conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the music of Mahler. So he chose The Rite and Mahler’s Symphony No 1. Easy!

At least so I thought, until I received “that” email from his assistant: “It is with great regret that Maestro Mehta has to cancel because of a rearranging of dates with a Ring Cycle he is conducting in Europe.”

Panic! What to do? I quickly Googled to see if he is conducting any of our players at the moment. Luck was on our side. Mehta was in Berlin with the Philharmonic conducting Mahler 1. So I contacted AWO musicians Stanley Dodds and Matthew McDonald, who both play with the Berlin Phil, and asked them to plead with Mehta after a rehearsal. Three days later I received another email from his assistant saying it was all back on again, with a new date.

And so I found myself in Vienna late last year to meet the man in person. After his rehearsal in the Musikverein we went to see him and were immediately invited into the soul of an Indian guru. His warmth, smile, humour and generosity make you feel like you are the most important person on earth when you’re talking to him.

I tried to discuss the schedule but his reaction was, “During the tour my time is your time, now let’s talk about the cricket!” We spent a few hours talking about music, politics, the AWO, Australia, Sachin

Tendulkar, Sir Donald Bradman (who invited Mehta for lunch when he toured Australia in the ’70s) and how India would reap revenge on the Australian cricket team when they toured India (which turned out to be true). Even with Mehta on board, it may be hard to match the emotion of the inaugural concert of the AWO, when the musicians received a three-minute ovation before they’d even played a single note! Nick Deutsch had the job of blowing the “A” to tune the orchestra. So choked up was he at the audience’s reaction that he physically could not blow that important note! He needed a whole minute before he could calm down.

But perhaps I’m wrong to worry 2011 will be a hard act to follow. As clarinettist Paul Dean, who plays with the AWO, told me. “Alex, if you think the reaction from the orchestra and audience was big last time, can you imagine what it will be like when the orchestra is together again and then out walks Zubin Mehta!”

The Australian World Orchestra plays in Melbourne and Sydney on October 2-4.