Reflecting the unique nature of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), its fifth birthday concert on 28 September in the Sydney Opera House could be reviewed from two different perspectives. Both are worthy of resounding praise.But first, a summary of what this orchestra is all about. It began with an idea developed by two Australian musicians, oboist Nick Deutsch and conductor Alexander Briger. They wanted to assemble Australian musicians who had won places in the finest orchestras around the world and put them together with the best players in Australian state orchestras to play occasional concerts in Australia – although its popularity has now created opportunities to play overseas. The first concert was in 2011and was so successful that it has created continuing sell-out demand, partly because it is one of the best orchestras in the world and partly because it plays so rarely. Moreover, each time it is heard it comprises a different set of players – giving it a mystical quality.
The orchestra booked the Sydney Opera House for two consecutive nights with a different conductor and program for each. Last night, under Alexander Briger, the AWO played Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 and a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin.
First, let’s look at this as a purely classical concert. Because the players are all top rated orchestral musicians (as distinct from soloists) they naturally form a perfect combination. The sound makes you feel as though you’ve just had the wax cleared from your ears. It is needle sharp in attack, grand in its ability to produce massive volume without harshness, and a clarity within instrumental sections that is hard to believe.
Initially, I questioned the wisdom of opening the concert with the hackneyed Ravel’s Bolero, but the performance totally won me over. Maestro Briger walked to the podium, the music began, but he didn’t conduct it. Rather he stood listening to the familiar, faint dialogue between kettle drum (placed in the geographical centre of the orchestra) and flute. It wasn’t until well past the halfway mark that he released his folded hands to direct his players. Bolero served a dual purpose. It methodically introduced these outstanding instrumentalists in ensemble groups or as soloists and, to me, was a metaphor for the birth and growth of the AWO project. I doubt Briger consciously intended it that way, but I’ll take credit for this interpretation.
Bolero was followed by a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This was not only an Australian premier, but a first-time experience for musicians and audience alike. The eight double bass players migrated from the back of the orchestra to the front of the stage, placing the conductor behind them – which presented a challenge because they couldn’t see him. I guessed that Kats-Chernin had taken this into account with her four movement score, because there seemed to be no call for a coordinated hit from soloists and orchestra.
The work makes for accessible listening but still manages to create a unique sound palate. The eight double bases sometimes played in unison and sometimes in parts. The effect was almost physical as the giant notes vibrated audience backbones and sternums. This was music that was easy to love at first hearing, switching between percussion jousts, the distant tinkling of the celeste, rhythmic storms, floods of strings and the occasional descent into spooky darkness.
Alexander Briger told me that after its Australian premier, quite a number of prominent conductors, Sir Simon Rattle among them, want the score for a performance. I rate this piece an outstanding addition to Australian composition.
The final work was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 in E Minor, which gave the AWO an opportunity to show just what it could do with the variety of colours on offer. Like Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s fifth is a veteran of orchestral concerts, but played by the AWO (and let’s not discount Briger’s masterful conducting) it sounded almost like a new piece.
The other perspective I mentioned earlier is to review the night as entertainment. In addition to the three ‘serious’ pieces, the program included two short works played by a combination of some AWO members and talented musical kids from around NSW. Then, to add to the festive feel of the concert, certain audience members sitting in the boxes had been given streamers and throwing lessons so the musicians might feel like they were aboard a departing ship. And, unusually, the orchestra played an encore: Star Wars no less. Fun, yes, but being a grumpy old bugger I could have done without it. I got my best laugh towards the end of the Tchaikovsky when Briger paused the orchestra in a rest and some chump in the circle started clapping.