After a stunning 2011 debut the Australia World Orchestra is back, with very special guest Zubin Mehta.
If someone had harnessed the electricity in the air at the Australian World Orchestra’s debut performance in August 2011, it could have powered the whole Sydney Opera House for months to come. “Before the orchestra had even played a single note,” recollects AWO founder and artistic director, conductor Alexander Briger, “the audience gave them a three- minute standing ovation. It was unreal.”
For ex-Melbourne violinist Anne Harvey-Nagl – concertmaster of the Vienna Volksoper and Austrian resident of over two decades, it was “one of her most musically electrifying experiences ever… The end product was a sound I have never experienced before. There were a lot of goosebumps involved.”
Like Harvey-Nagl, almost all the 92 musicians on the stage of the Sydney Opera House had flown in from somewhere else – many from positions as concertmasters and principals of 45 European, American and Asian orchestras. They’d come from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, from Stuttgart, London, Copenhagen and Edinburgh, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong… to sit alongside players representing every Australian state orchestra – and even members of the current Australian Youth Orchestra. Before them, baton poised to launch into a program of Wagner, Sculthorpe and Tchaikovsky, stood Simone Young – the Sydney-born conductor who became high priestess of the Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic.
United by their phenomenal collective musical talent (and their Australian passports) the AWO was an international first – the world’s only orchestra comprised solely of representatives of one country, brought together from all over the planet. For many of the expat musicians, it was the realisation of an impossible dream – to play again on Australian soil and rekindle friendships from a former life.
“It’s like AYO with wrinkles,” commented Young on surveying the musicians assembled before her at the first rehearsal.
Artistically and musically, the venture was a triumph. Featuring works and appearances by Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe and Brett Dean, a solo by didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton – the concerts were acclaimed by critics and was even voted Best Orchestral Concert of 2011, by none other than Limelight magazine.
“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” said Matthew McDonald, principal double bass of the Berlin Philharmonic. “The standard of playing was of a luxuriously high level, made all the more exciting with each musician bringing a wealth of ensemble experience with them. I think it worked musically so well because of the wonderful personal energy running through the AWO. I don’t think many of us had experienced an orchestral project so socially fun since playing in youth orchestras.”
That was then, this is now. The AWO’s second series of concerts take place this month, with Melbourne also being granted performances in Hamer Hall on October 2 and 4, with a 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House wedged in between on October 3. After such a rapturously received debut, this year’s concerts risk suffering from “the curse of the second album”. Can the success of 2011 be repeated? What augurs well for the orchestra is their conductor for 2013: in a major coup, Zubin Mehta is heading south to direct the 105-piece ensemble for all three concerts.
The 77-year-old former musical director of the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics appears unfazed by the prospect of an amalgam of musicians who normally work in vastly different orchestral traditions. “They are such fine musicians,” says Mehta, “even if they haven’t all grown up with each other, they know the repertoire they are playing inside out and they’ll have such fun playing with each other and being in each other’s company.”
Approximately one tenth of the AWO is based in Vienna, where Mehta himself studied in the 1950s, and still regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. But it was a Japanese orchestra, oddly enough, that provided the inspiration for the AWO. In 2005, Briger was invited to conduct the Japanese Virtuoso Symphony Orchestra, made up of top musicians selected from Tokyo’s finest orchestras. The spectacular results of the JVSO model so impressed Briger that he began to fantasize about creating an Australian version of the idea, with the added challenge that musicians would have to be repatriated from across the globe.
Briger tells of sharing his idea with his uncle, the renowned conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, over a bottle of red, three years after his Japan experience. Mackerras, Briger’s mentor and “second father”, was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The next day, Briger called his close friend, oboist Nick Deutsch, now Professor of Oboe at the Hochschule für Musik in Leipzig, Germany.
“Alex said he’d just had an amazing conversation with his uncle,” Deutsch recalls. “Of course I thought it was a brilliant idea, something we’d all been dreaming of for years – a chance to come home and play together with other Australians. I’d been working in Europe for 16 years, performing with over 40 orchestras and being consistently amazed at how many Australian musicians are working here. Alex and I began to ask people what they thought, and everyone loved the idea.”
Enthusiastic as they may have been, few in the expat musician community imagined Briger could actually pull it off, even with the support of Sir Charles, who had come on board as the orchestra’s patron. Vienna Symphony’s Principal Horn, Hector McDonald, was more than skeptical.
“The AWO project seemed completely crazy to me. Getting all those musicians from overseas at the same time… the sheer expense of it, the logistics! And getting top line conductors at the same time, plus getting the local orchestras to let players be involved… a nightmare! The fact that it’s actually happened is extraordinary.”
Securing an A-list conductor such as Mehta proved easier than expected: an army of musicians in orchestras around the world was a networking resource. Nick Deutsch proved the key contact, having worked under Zubin for seven years in the Israel Philharmonic, directed by Mehta since 1967. Appealing to his well-known passion for cricket, Deutsch initially enticed the Indian maestro Australia-wards with the promise of combining the AWO concerts with one of the Ashes Tests between England and Australia in December. “Unfortunately,” laments Mehta, “I couldn’t make it in December and we shifted it to September. So I won’t see any cricket this time I’m afraid.”
But he’s looking forward to his antipodean sojourn regardless. “I know quite a few of the musicians who are coming to play from abroad. So many great Australian musicians will come from Vienna, Berlin, Munich – many other places. It’s a very tempting prospect.”
Briger couldn’t be more excited. “It’s a total coup. Mehta is quite simply one of my favourite conductors. He’s like a classical music version of Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney. You can’t help but be in awe of these people when they are in front of you. And given that Mehta usually sticks to many of the same orchestras many of these musicians have never met or worked under him before. And the ones who have know just what he will bring! We know from the inaugural season the orchestra is on the edge of their seats the entire time, but having someone of this stature in front of them will tip it over the edge. It’s a little like a big wave surfer surfing a 40-foot wave at Waimea Bay and then going up the road and jumping on a 70-foot wave at Peahi! You have to give that bit more!”
For Matt McDonald, the diversity within the orchestra only adds to the thrill, showing, “how great an orchestra can sound with a mix of styles and traditions. While we have a common nationality, our musical backgrounds couldn’t have been more varied. I loved the excitement generated by this, as it’s rare to play in an orchestra mixing so many styles of playing. The differences are subtle, but can make a big difference in a full time orchestra with its own traditions. The AWO was wonderfully unfettered by these issues.”
Briger leapt at Mehta’s suggestion to perform the score to Igor Stravinsky’s once riot-provoking ballet, The Rite of Spring, which commemorates the centenary of its composition this year. “Mehta is renowned worldwide for his interpretation of this work. As a conductor myself, I personally think he is the best conductor of this work alive. I’ve seen him and many others do it live but nothing compares to the excitement produced from both the orchestra and audience that Mehta brings to this work. Mehta is also one of the great interpreters of Gustav Mahler. So we asked him which symphony he would like to do and he chose the First, which is perfect for this orchestra.”
This particular combination of works will be a first for Mehta. “These two works were written within a little more than a decade by two great revolutionaries and are completely different in style. It will be wonderful to change gears before and after the intermission. I don’t want it to sound too difficult.”
Even with one successful season behind them and now Mehta as drawcard, the financial and logistical challenges of putting together what Alex describes as “one of the most complicated orchestras in Australia’s history” remain daunting. The brainpower at the helm of the mammoth undertaking is Briger’s sister, the dynamic Gabrielle Thompson – film producer and now CEO of AWO.
“We’ve moved away from thinking of ourselves as just a festival organisation to an arts organisation,” Gabrielle explains, noting that she, Alex and most of the staff are working on a pro bono basis. “We fund ourselves as do other arts organizations, by seeking support from four major areas: government – both federal and state; ticket sales, which account for about half our income; corporate support, which is tough in the current environment, and the philanthropic market in both Sydney and Melbourne. We’ve been thrilled at the way the market segment has embraced us.” Pulling together the “World Domination Orchestra”, as it’s been nicknamed, has almost taken over the Brigers’ lives.
However, the enthusiastic reception on the part of the musicians has created somewhat of a dilemma for Briger as artistic director. “There are so many wonderful Australian musicians worldwide, yet we can invite only around 100 of them each season, for obvious reasons. We wish we could have them all, but that would mean an orchestra of over 1,000!”
Horn player Hector McDonald is “delighted and honoured” to be invited to participate a second time. For him this season holds a particular significance. On October 3, 1963, at the tender age of 20, he played with the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras, as Queen Elizabeth II opened the Sydney Opera House. Forty years later, he’ll be back on the same stage, “very excited” at the prospect of celebrating this landmark event “with such a distinguished group of musicians as the Australian World Orchestra”.
In contrast with most orchestras, there are no auditions for the AWO, and players decide which parts they should play, so the audience will see the orchestra rotating in their seating during the performance. “Many musicians have written to us asking to play and we have tried where possible to include them,” explains Briger. “If it hasn’t been possible thus far, they are on the list for the future. This year’s line-up is different from 2011, but those who have not been re-invited or are unable to attend know they are still part of the ‘family’”.
For now, Briger can’t wait for the first rehearsal when the orchestra is “all together again, tuning and nervously waiting, then out walks Zubin Mehta! And then, the performances, when the orchestra is on stage, the door opens and out walks this great man! The music, I know, will be sensational.”