These days a victorious homecoming is normally reserved for élite athletes, but since 2011 it has had an equivalent in the sphere of classical music, thanks to the creation of the Australian World Orchestra. The brainchild of Alexander Briger, this project-based orchestra unites expatriate Australians plying their trade overseas with the cream of musicians active at home, to create a supergroup of sorts. The calibre of the players has been matched or even surpassed by some of the big names who have conducted it previously, including Australia's own Simone Young (2011), Zubin Mehta (2013), and Simon Rattle (2015). In these parlous times for classical music, putting together the funding to make this dream a reality was an achievement in itself. What might have been a one-off novelty event has just celebrated its fifth anniversary with its fourth set of Sydney concerts, and is seemingly firmly established.
The 2016 concerts marked a new direction on several fronts, not least the absence of a marquee name on the podium. This probably contributed to the hall being less full than in previous years: inevitably, the excitement attendant on a biennial concert led by a global superstar isn't going to be replicated by an annual event with two talented but less prestigious conductors, one of whom plies his trade in Sydney. Moreover, my impression was that there were more Australia-based musicians involved this time around: three of the four woodwind sections were led by Sydney Symphony Orchestra principals, and members of the SSO were also especially prominent in the trumpets, basses, and trombones. There was also a sprinkling of advanced students from the Melbourne-based Australian National Academy of Music and similar institutions, presumably part of Briger's commendable policy of nurturing younger talent (more on this later).
So what does this more 'local' turn betoken? Without knowledge of the inner workings of the AWO, it is hard to estimate whether this was to any extent financially necessitated, although with the orchestra heading on to Singapore it seems unlikely. The greater use of Australia-based talent in the orchestra and on the podium may simply have reflected availability: late September is less convenient time for European and US-based musicians to return to their homeland than the early August date of the 2015 concerts, as opera and concert seasons in the Northern hemisphere are by now up and running after the summer break.
But whatever the motivations, this increased local representation should not in any way be considered a back-step. Put in this blunt fashion, it sounds like the most obvious of truisms, surely an unnecessary defensiveness in the twenty-first century. And yet, to this day several Australian arts organisations still seem to harbour a covert preference for international 'stars' over local talent. Anecdotally, I have heard much criticism from Sydney-based musicians and singers at the overseas bias of major concert promoters and arts companies. This would seem to perpetuate the phenomenon of 'cultural cringe', Australia's much-analysed sense of inferiority as a latecomer to Western artistic culture, although such perceptions ought to have been roundly debunked by a thousand counter-examples, not least the AWO itself.
The AWO has demonstrated from the start that Australian musicians, wherever they may currently be based, can perform together at a world-class level. Admittedly, there is the attraction of novelty when hearing Alison Mitchell and Meg Sterling, principal flautists of the Scottish Chamber and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras respectively, to name just two visitors who were outstanding in these concerts. However, several Sydney-based musicians were equally impressive, not least Frank Celata (clarinet), and Kees Boersma and Alex Henery (bass). Put differently, the AWO not only makes us aware of the outstanding achievements of Australian musicians on the world stage, but even more significantly, it proves that Australia itself is part of this world stage.
The first concert on Wednesday was directed by Alexander Briger, who has the dual title of chief conductor and artistic director of the AWO. Ravel's Boléro, in which the spotlight changes every few bars from one soloist or instrument group to another, was the perfect way to introduce the orchestra. At the outset, the snare drum was barely audible, but on the whole Briger managed the fifteen-minute crescendo well, always managing to find another dynamic level, even when things seemed to have peaked near the end. The daringly soft phrase endings from the clarinet early on were delicious, and the jazzy note bends from the saxophones a risqué thrill.
Next up was Elena Kats-Chernin's The Witching Hour, a newly commissioned concerto featuring as soloists the eight orchestral double basses lined along the front of the stage, with Boersma as the lynchpin from whom the others took their cues. This four-movement work also took programmatic inspiration from a Russian folk tale about a little girl's magical doll protector and the threatening witch Baba Yaga. Against a spooky string and celeste backdrop, the basses began with a melodic passage in a very high register. The first movement ('Spectres in the Forest') featured lots of unison writing for the soloists, while in the second ('The Wooden Doll Awakens') there were noteworthy chordal passages. There was a sense of déjà vu when the second movement began, like the first, with a slow section before moving into a faster tempo.
Throughout the concerto, the frequent use of the upper register was characteristic of the bass-writing, greatly aiding clarity and audibility; when the basses descended into the lower reaches in the third movement ('Elegy'), the sound was thick and muddy in the problematic acoustic. Elsewhere, an arsenal of extended string techniques was employed – for instance, knocking on the body of the instrument in the second movement, and in the fourth ('Vasilisa the Beautiful') there were some Bartókian pizzicati, in which the plucked string rebounds off the fingerboard. There was a preponderance of the minor mode in all four movements, which somewhat limited the emotional ambit, although Kats-Chernin's command of attractive, filmic orchestral textures provided compensatory variety.
Unannounced on the program, another educational outreach project made its main-stage début just after the interval on Wednesday: an orchestra comprising young students of the Regional Conservatoriums of New South Wales sharing a stand with their AWO mentors. This was a thoroughly worthy initiative, even if it made the evening rather long; the sight of a second violinist whose feet didn't touch the floor served as a reminder of how long is the journey and how early the start for musicians who wish to reach the heights. The young players acquitted themselves commendably in an abridged transcription of Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev (transposed to C, and sounding a lot simpler than Ravel's celebrated version), followed by Bernstein's 'America' from West Side Story.
The final item, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, left me rather cold. There were a few technical problems with balance – the woodwind, in particular, tended to get swamped – but it went further than this. Individually, the different sections of the orchestra were excellent: the strings had a lush, warm sound, the horns were on top form (the famous theme at the beginning of the second movement was gorgeous), and when the entire orchestra was playing at full throttle it was sonically thrilling. However, even though Briger seemed to be doing all the right things, the interpretation never fully took flight; even climactic E major section of the Finale didn't convey the expected feeling of catharsis. There was more pleasure to be had from individual moments such as the nicely aerated brisk passages in the third movement than there was a satisfying sense of overall architecture or narrative sweep.
On the whole, the Thursday concert was a tighter and more satisfactory affair. Stanley Dodds had the easier task on one level, with only two works on his program, each a popular masterpiece. However, the very popularity of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and Dvořák's Ninth meant that he was going to have to deliver something special: the former work had been performed twice in Sydney already this year (by Anima Eterna Brugge and by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy). Dodds rose to the challenge well: his graceful, precise direction seemed to inspire the musicians, and both symphonies were delivered with panache.
Beethoven's Seventh started with a clean, neatly phrased slow introduction, followed by a punchy Allegro, with the ending of the first movement particularly exuberant. The beloved slow movement was taken at quite a lick, and the cohesion of the opening theme made it sound like it was coming from a single polyphonic instrument rather than separate players. There was no slackening of pace for the contrasting major-mode section; if anything, the ends of phrases here were slightly pushed. All the balance issues from the night before were forgotten – the woodwind were perfectly audible in Variation 4, despite the busy string counterpoint.
In the scherzo, the bouncy feel of the music was beautifully matched by the conductor, who was on the balls of his feet throughout; he choreographed the phrase architecture admirably. The transitions between dynamic levels in the trio were nicely managed. I don't remember hearing the finale taken quite so quickly in a live performance before, but it made for a thrilling ride. While the instrumentalists were unfailingly precise, the blurriness of the hall meant that a few of the furious slurred passages at the end of exposition briefly turned into auditory porridge. Still, this was a price I was willing to pay for a performance of such swagger and zest.
After the interval, Dvořák's New World Symphony lived up to the level set in the first half. The first movement had both drama and lyrical pathos, with tight horn playing in the first theme, and a beautiful melody from the flutes at the other end of the exposition. The egalitarian nature of the orchestra was particularly evident in this case, with one flute playing the melody the first time around, and the other taking it over later in the movement. The bed of sound created at the start of the second movement was a beautiful backdrop to Rixon Thomas's winning delivery of the famous spiritual 'Goin' home' on the cor anglais. Throughout the third movement, there were enjoyable spot colours from the woodwind, complemented by vigorously articulated strings. Dodds elicted a sunny geniality from the players in the trio. The finale had all the gusto one was expecting.
A five-year anniversary is cause for celebration, and the AWO was determined to make it so: the final ovations in both programs were accompanied by an ejaculation of streamers from all quarters of the auditorium, and both conductors obliged with an encore. Briger's demotic choice of music from Star Wars was surpassed by Dodd's lively take on Dvořák's Slavonic Dance in G minor. As a whole, the second program regained the heights I remember the AWO reaching under Mehta (and, by all accounts, under Rattle too): it is still a world-beating ensemble. Ad multos annos!
Australian World Orchestra's fifth anniversary concerts were held at the Sydney Opera House on 28 and 29 September 2016.
Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.