The Australian World Orchestra brings together Australians living across the globe each year for concerts celebrating epic orchestral repertoire. Since its founding in 2010, the orchestra has been successful in securing the baton waving services of some of the most esteemed conductors of our age: Riccardo Mutti, Sir Simon Rattle and Zubhin Mehta amongst others.
It is also not a concept free from criticism. The “GreyYO” (that is, no longer youthful members of the Australian Youth Orchestra) as it is sometimes affectionately known, has detractors that point to its enormous cost and the opaque nature of player selection and engagement. No institution is perfect and in response to that I would simply say: who cares?
In recent years, the AWO has consistently presented concerts of excellence that have an energy and sense of occasion almost impossible to replicate with a permanent band. There is also cause to highlight and celebrate the rather extraordinary success and reach of Australian musicians into every corner of the world’s most lauded cultural establishments.
This year, the concert was directed by the orchestra’s founder and Artistic Director, Alexander Briger. The Europe-based Australian conductor has enjoyed a significant international career but is not a celebrity the likes of Mutti or Rattle. A virtually packed Hamer Hall indicated the audience didn’t mind.
The sole work on this program was Mahler’s final completed symphony. Incorporating plenty of virtuosic solo moments, this epic piece in both scope and instrumentation requires the utmost endurance and focus.
There was much that will linger in the memory – Lin Jiang as principal horn, Nick Deutsche as principal oboe, Rixon Thomas’s cor anglais, and Andrew Nicholson as principal flute, who each owned their significant solo moments; a lush violin sound that rivaled any orchestra in the world, particularly at the opening of the fourth movement, and some fine solos from concertmaster Natalie Chee; an incredibly solid foundation from the bass section that managed to be at once captivating but never intrusive; and superb percussion work, particularly from the timpani.
Briger, conducting from memory, owned the work with confidence and clear insight. The fact he dressed in the same uniform as his players sent a classy and important symbolic message. I didn’t agree with all his choices. For my taste, the final movement could have been more spacious and needed to breathe more, and making sense of the vast structure of the first movement is an extraordinary challenge that others may have illuminated more.
In a world full of conflict and cheap shallow entertainment, it was immensely gratifying to spend an evening hearing the fruits of a vast group of old and new friends coming together in the service of a Mahler’s genius.
Stewart Kelly reviewed the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 given by The Australian World Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 22, 2023.