What drew you to the idea of an all-Strauss program for the Sydney Youth Orchestra?

I wanted to introduce these young musicians to some of the greatest music ever written. I wanted them to hear and experience the magic of the trio of Rosenkavalier for their first time with Sydney Youth Orchestra, to hear The Four Last Songs for their first time with us, to have a chance at playing, in my opinion, Strauss’s best tone poem Don Juan. First, unforgettable and incredible experiences. I hope it will stay with them forever.

Alexander Briger, Sydney Youth OrchestraAlexander Briger conducting the Sydney Youth Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Sydney Youth Orchestras

What are some advantages of devoting a whole concert to a single composer in this way?

I actually really enjoy doing concerts like these, exploring one composer, hearing the different styles that particular composer achieves during different periods of their life. It’s incredibly interesting for both the audience and musicians.

What are the challenges and pleasures of Strauss for a youth orchestra?

Strauss is extremely difficult. So there are the pure technical demands of course. However, the music is so lush, romantic and ecstatic that young musicians adore playing it – like Mahler and Bruckner. I’ve always noticed youth ensembles revel in playing massive works with a large orchestra – Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Stravinsky etc. It excites them to hear this enormous sound around them. Most importantly though, most of these young musicians have never heard much of this music. So for me and the audience, it’s very touching to imagine it’s the first time they have heard Rosenkavalier or the Four Last Songs! I just love that. They give everything! This is what it’s all about. Inspiring them, teaching them, introducing them to a complete new sound world and creating experiences that will stay with them forever.

Cheryl Barker, Emma Pearson and Caroline Meng will sing with the orchestra in this concert. How important is it for young musicians to have opportunities to work with vocalists?

I never understand why youth orchestras don’t do more opera?! After all it’s some of best repertoire – Strauss, Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Janáček et cetera. It’s just so important. I’ll never forget the thrill SYO had when we did Janáček’s complete The Cunning Little Vixen – fully staged. To think, it was the first time they’d ever played a full opera and the first time they’d ever heard any Janáček! And at the end, they played it with a passion that would rival some of the best professional orchestras. But it wasn’t just learning this incredible music – it was learning the art of sitzproben, stage and orchestral rehearsals, working with a stage director, and most importantly the art of accompanying singers – balancing with them, following them, reacting to the conductor’s gestures. All those aspects that separate an opera orchestra from a symphonic one.

The concert is dedicated to Richard Gill – what did he mean to the SYO and to you personally?

Richard was an integral part of SYO dating back so many years. Our alumni really got to known him through playing under him at SYO. It was quite clear to us all that we should dedicate this concert to him. The music could not be more apt, remembering, too, Richard’s love for opera! I remember having long and very humorous talks to him about opera, particularly about Mozart’s ‘da Ponte’ operas and about the art of relaxation at the podium, so that the orchestra feels relaxed and at ease to play beautifully – something that is lost on so many conductors. Richard had that rare ability to educate and inspire everyone, not just adolescents and teenagers but professionals as well – and always with such humour! It was a gift that cannot be taught and will be sorely missed in the Australian cultural landscape.

Alexander Briger conducts the Sydney Youth Orchestra at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on December 8