World class: AWO musicians (From left) Anna McMichael, Kirsty McCahon and Scott Stiles. Photo: Steven Siewert
The charitable reaction to Alexander Briger's plan for an Australian World Orchestra was that it was ambitious. Realistically, it seemed impossible.
Briger, an Australian conductor who had been studying and working overseas for 20 years, returned to Sydney in 2009 with the idea of an all-Australian orchestra, comprising 100 musicians, roughly half based at home and the others cherry-picked from leading orchestras and ensembles throughout the world.
With battery-ad bunny energy and passionate zeal, Briger pulled off an artistic coup that thrilled audiences and reduced the musicians themselves to tears of camaraderie and pride. That was in 2011, when the AWO appeared at the Sydney Opera House, conducted by Briger, Australian composer Brett Dean and Simone Young, the acclaimed Australian conductor now principal music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic.
The orchestra will perform again in October, this time with more players (107) and with internationally revered Indian maestro Zubin Mehta, 77, conducting.
''I know the standard of the Australian players I already know in Europe,'' Mehta says. ''They're some of the world's leading musicians, so that, artistically, gave me a reason to accept.''
In hindsight, none of the team realised how difficult it would be to co-ordinate the schedules of dozens of elite musicians, says Gabrielle Thompson, Briger's film-producer sister, who became chief executive of the AWO. ''But I think it's too easy to get caught up in the story of putting it all together and forget the story of who we're bringing,'' she says. ''They're why we started this in the first place.''
Why have so many of these musicians left home in the first place? The reasons, Briger says, are predominantly cultural. ''Because Australia's so isolated, you don't get the opportunity to hear a lot of these great orchestras regularly,'' he says.
''It's also because you're in a western classical music tradition and people want to get a feel for where all this music came from,'' says Anna McMichael, a violinist who returned to Australia in 2010 after 17 years in Europe.
''It's great to feel what it's like to play Italian music in Italy and French music in France. And it's about wanting to see the world, not only musically, but the art and architecture.''
When the expats were asked to return for the AWO, however, there was enthusiastic acceptance and, eventually, first-rehearsal trepidation. Here were some of the world's top musicians, people such as Matthew McDonald (principal double bass of the Berlin Philharmonic), Tobias Lee (principal viola with the Vienna Philharmonic) and Diana Doherty (principal oboe of the Sydney Symphony). There was no questioning their individual talent, but would they mesh as an ensemble?
From the opening notes it was clear the AWO was an astonishing artistic achievement. The sound was very European, Briger says, rich, lush and full.
''What also distinguished this particular orchestra was the fact that they all wanted to make it work,'' he says. ''It wasn't a daytime job; they weren't there for the money or the social occasion, as wonderful as that was. It was the fact that a dream had been realised and they wanted it to be incredible. When the orchestra walked out for its first performance, the audience went ballistic. We were in tears. Nick Deutsch, who was principal oboist, was supposed to blow the A to tune the orchestra and was so choked up, he couldn't for about 30 seconds. He said he'd never been that nervous in his life. It'll happen again this time for sure, when they all walk out en masse.''
For the 2013 season, the Australian World Orchestra will perform Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for the piece's 100th anniversary and Mahler's 1st Symphony. Both are specialties of Mehta.
''In fact,'' Briger says, ''I would go so far as to say nobody conducts the Rite better than Zubin Mehta. He's just phenomenal at it.''
The Australian World Orchestra performs at the Opera House on October 3.