The concept of combining the excellence of Australian musicians working around the globe and getting them together for an annual series of concerts, directed by some of the most renowned conductors, is a brilliant one. Brother and sister team Alexander Briger and Gabrielle Thompson, the artistic and administrative leaders of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), forged an enviable brand which has lost none of its shine since its inception some seven years ago. The logistics of such an enterprise are just as challenging as raising funds for it, particularly when such luminaries, as Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, or the invited Maestro for the current series of three concerts, Riccardo Muti, are engaged to conduct the AWO.
This is Muti’s second visit to Australia; his first to conduct a local orchestra. (He appeared here with his own orchestra when La Scala came to Sydney during the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival.) Despite his enormous reputation, the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House was far from full. Looking at the near-empty choir/gallery stalls, I was wondering if a last-minute rush – offered, say, to tertiary music students who could not possibly afford the expensive tickets – would have given them a lifetime experience while populating the unfilled rows. The joy of enjoying Muti’s art should not exclusively belong to the affluent.
The program consisted of two nineteenth-century masterworks: the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms, which was followed after interval by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. These two composers represent different facets of the Romantic era; nonetheless, their fundamentally divergent views about musical matters did not prevent them from respecting each other’s work. (They even met in person and apparently had a jovial meal at some stage later in their lives.) As a subtle connecting link, both compositions were written in the same year, 1877 – a sign of thoughtful programming, even if this detail would not necessarily add to anyone’s appreciation of the concert.
The musicians of the orchestra share two essential qualities: all of them are Australians, and all of them are eminent representatives of their profession. Many of them work as principal players in their own orchestra overseas but have gladly accepted the invitation to play tutti in this concert. Such is the attraction of the AWO. The third, often emphasised quality – that these Australian musicians came together from all over the world – was perhaps less obvious on this occasion, as there seemed to be a higher representation of local musicians (mostly Melbourne and Sydney players) than was the case with previous AWO concerts. For example, the cello section did not have any expatriate players in it – not that this meant any discernible difference in the quality of their playing.
At the barely noticeable movement of Muti’s right hand, the delicately soft murmur in the lower strings began Brahms’s Second Symphony. Here and later, it was clear that the Italian conductor seldom uses extensive gestures, which allows his musicians to play as rehearsed. He remained firmly in charge throughout the concert, though, and when he saw the need to bring out a special musical moment, be it an internal voice or the emphasis of a crescendo, he invariably did so.
This revealed a unique side of his artistry. On the one hand, his conducting simply marked the flow of the music, with meticulous yet elegant movements. His beating technique is crystal clear, thus it comes as no surprise that he belongs to those conductors who actually want their beat to be followed exactly, rather than with a nebulous – although, for a good orchestra, still followable – delay (a famous example was the conducting of Herbert von Karajan). On the other hand, Muti’s attention to detail specific to his artistic concept, a kind of micromanagement of musical gestures, created many distinctive moments.
Muti’s interpretation of the Brahms Symphony was introverted and contemplative, rather than the often presented ponderous Teutonic affair. Perhaps this was the reason why some of the tempi – for example, the deliberate pace of the first movement – were on the slow side and thus less convincing. All four movements began softly; even the poco forte (literally a ‘little loud’) marking of the slow movement was taken with restraint. The movement gained from it: right from the beginning, it was brimming with nostalgia, not uncommon in the music of Brahms.
In the Tchaikovsky, the seating order within many sections of the orchestra changed, with new principal players sitting at the front. With the luxury of so many musicians fulfilling principal roles in their own company, this was both understandable and wise. The playing standard of this technically demanding work was extremely high; in particular the horn section excelled with its coherent, well-formed articulation and beautiful sonority, and much the same could be said of the brass section.
The performance of this Symphony was fulsome and powerful. There were some tender pianissimos from the strings in the opening movement, offsetting the desperate outbursts of the famous ‘Fate’ motif in the brass. The plucked (pizzicato) sections of the Scherzo were homogenous and brilliantly played, and the final drive in the Finale led to a tumultuous and triumphant finish.
After the official program, Muti gave a short and moving speech about the enriching power of and the need for music in our lives, before an equally moving rendition of the encore, the overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.