“The only instrument that doesn’t make a mistake is this one,” Maestro Riccardo Muti quips to the orchestra as he brandishes his baton. The formidable Italian conductor and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director is jovial – affectionate even – as he conducts the Australian World Orchestra in rehearsal ahead of concerts in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I’m so sharp!” he complains after singing a line from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4, which the AWO will perform alongside Brahms’ Second. “Con amore!” he commands the violins in another passage, before getting a laugh from the musicians with: “It doesn’t mean anything, but it makes an impression.”

Riccardo Muti, AWO, Australian World OrchestraMaestro Riccardo Muti. Photo © Todd Rosenberg

Despite the jokes and anecdotes, however, Muti brings a quiet, focussed intensity to the rehearsal, which he runs with incredible attention to detail, shaping this orchestra – comprising Australian musicians from all over the world – to his musical will.

“I was really surprised, because I had no idea how it would go,” violinist Natalie Chee (whose day job is Concertmaster with the SWR Symphonieorchester in Stuttgart) tells me in the lunch break, referring to the orchestra’s first rehearsal with the conductor on Sunday. “I don’t know Maestro Muti at all, and it was so relaxed! He was in such a good mood – he was making jokes. He started off by saying, ‘I just want to say that everything you’ve ever heard about me… is true.’ That sort of broke the ice. It’s been a great atmosphere.”

Natalie Chee, AWO, Australian World OrchestraViolinist Natalie Chee. Photo © Daniel Boud

“I was very touched by the way he did the Brahms,” says Chee, who is leading the orchestra in the Second Symphony. “He’s getting the orchestra to play extremely softly with a beautiful sound, very transparent – not this huge mega sound that a lot of orchestras play Brahms with. I really appreciate that because this is an amazing orchestra – because there are amazing people in it and we can just get together and play an amazing concert – but we do play in different orchestras, have different styles, different countries. So it’s really nice to have someone who’s really going into detail, moulding the orchestra to get a sound that he really wants.”

A quick glance over the faces of the musicians arrayed on stage reveals a line-up of concertmasters and principal chairs – for the Tchaikovsky, Daniel Dodds (Artistic Director and Leader of the Festival Strings Lucerne) is concertmaster and Chee is in the rank and file. So is there any jockeying for position in what could easily become a case of too many cooks?

“Not at all,” Chee says. “That’s the really, really nice thing about this orchestra. I feel so privileged, I mean I get to lead one piece (which is just amazing) but I get to sit at the back of the section for the other piece – which I never do, because I’m always leading orchestras. And then I see in front of me all these concertmasters who sit in other orchestras and everybody’s just happy to be wherever. It’s just about the music.”

Nick Deutsch, AWO, Australian World OrchestraOboist Nick Deutsch

“It’s incredible,” says oboist Nick Deutsch, who plays Solo Oboe with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Frankfurt Opera, in addition to his positions as Professor of Oboe at the Hochschule für Musik, Leipzig and Artistic Director of the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. “It’s such an occasion and everybody’s rising to the occasion.”

For Deutsch, who was involved in the initial discussions with conductor Alexander Briger about creating the AWO and has performed in all the concerts to date, it was a surprise that Muti agreed to come. “I think it’s really fantastic to have him,” he says. “He’s demanding so much from the orchestra – it’s incredible. You’ve got a collection of incredible players, but it’s a brand new orchestra and he’s wasting no time in achieving a cohesive sound.”

“You’ve got a collection of incredible players but of course it’s a brand new orchestra and he’s wasting no time in achieving the cohesive sound,” Deutsch says. “It’s extraordinary if you’re thinking people are coming from not only geographical positions but totally different traditions, different pitches, where one plays on the beat, and he’s really cohesively bringing the orchestra together, it’s really fantastic.”

“He’s rhetorically so gifted in portraying what he wants to achieve and the orchestra is so responsive,” Deutsch says. “The orchestra’s really finding its identity and its colour, it’s fantastic to watch that transformation and be part of it.”

“Most of the time professionally you work with orchestras that are steeped in tradition,” he says. “I mean, I’m living in Germany, and the orchestras that I work with are hundreds of years old and when you come to that orchestra it’s a responsibility to take on that tradition. And here you’re part of the birth – it’s being created in front of your eyes.”

For violist Molly Collier O’Boyle, playing with the orchestra as the AWO Academy Musician for 2018, the experience is particularly exciting. “I was a little bit nervous to start off with, but it’s pretty incredible to see so many awesome musicians on one stage. So many I haven’t even seen before because they’re all from overseas.”

For Collier-O’Boyle, Muti was perhaps the biggest surprise. “At first I thought he would be intimidating but he’s actually so funny. He’s such a character!”

“I think it’s really interesting him describing the actual meaning of Italian words in the music – we always think Adagio just means slow – and he puts into context all these other words, the feeling of a written word instead of a strict tempo. It’s changed the way that everybody’s playing it, I think. His direction with phrasing and knowing exactly what he wants and attention to detail is really amazing.”

Collier O’Boyle led the viola section of the Porter Chamber Orchestra at the 2017 Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp, and she sees a similar atmosphere at the AWO (it has been nicknamed the Grey Y O by some of the musicians). “It is like going and doing an AYO but everyone’s really experienced and older than you,” she says. “It kind of does have the camp vibe, it’s been really interesting to watch everyone. It doesn’t ever end, you know?” she laughs. “It’s nice – camp’s awesome!”

It helps that her campmates are Tobias Lea, Principal Violist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Christopher Moore, Principal Violist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (and formerly of the Australian Chamber Orchestra). “I’ve been really lucky to sit next to both Toby Lea and Chris Moore and just sitting in a section like that – extra amazing normally principal violists – is incredible and I’m learning so much just from paying attention to what everybody’s doing.”

So does the camp (or camp reunion) atmosphere infect the rehearsals? “Rattle did say in the first rehearsal I’ll try my best not to get in the way of your socialising,” Deutsch admits, citing a healthy balance between work ethic and collegiality. But in the rehearsal with Maestro Muti it’s clear the musicians are there to work.

“There’s so much respect for the music and the maestro that I think we manage to switch between the ‘Oh I haven’t seen you for 30 years, what have you been up to and how many kids have you got’ to concentrating on the music and focussing,” Deutsch says. “I mean, when the maestro speaks you can hear a pin drop.”

There’s an excitement that emanates from the musicians – and it comes through in the music as they rehearse the Tchaikovsky. “I think this is an extraordinary orchestra,” Deutsch says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for people to witness something quite incredible.”

Riccardo Muti conducts the Australian World Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House on May 2 and 4, and at Hamer Hall, Melbourne on May 5