SYDNEY — The Australian World Orchestra, created in 2011, consists of Australians from around the globe who come together once a year in their homeland. This year’s mini-festival consisted of two performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, one in Melbourne on Nov. 22 and one here in the Sydney Opera House on Nov. 24, led by Alexander Briger.
In 1991, when Briger was a conducting student in Munich, he attended a performance of the Mahler Ninth by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra led by Claudio Abbado. “It changed my life completely,” Briger told me in a telephone interview during a break from rehearsal. “That performance, something happened — there was no applause for seven or eight minutes. Deathly silence. No one got up. Abbado was drained. And I’ve never been to a performance of Mahler’s 9th after that. I’m so fearful that I’ll lose that memory. I listen to it on recordings, and I’ve conducted it a few times. But I don’t want to lose that perception of the sound.”
Decades later, after finding success as a conductor in Europe (especially in opera, but increasingly in concert music), Briger created the Australian World Orchestra, modeled after Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra, to bring together virtuoso musicians, all Aussies in this case. About half play in orchestras far from Australia, primarily in Europe and the U.S., and the other half are from orchestras across Australia. Each year, the roster changes based on program needs and who is available, but regulars include top-ranked musicians from ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Concertgebouw Orchestra. Guest conductors have included Zubin Mehta, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Muti, and Simone Young, who each “bring their party pieces,” said Briger. (Mehta chose The Rite of Spring and the Mahler First Symphony, for example.)
With the schedule limited to a single week of intense rehearsals and performances in Australia each year plus the occasional tour elsewhere (last year, the orchestra played at the BBC Proms and at the Edinburgh International Festival), the musicians can slip away from their day jobs. “They’re all friends, and they don’t do this for the money,”Briger said. “This isn’t a highly paid gig for them: They play for ‘mates rates.’ There are no unions, no egos, nobody cares where they sit. We have concertmasters from great orchestras sitting in the back and swapping around.” (In the program book, the musicians, 98 for this concert, were listed alphabetically by instrument.)
One of the Briger’s goals for the AWO has always been to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. “Mahler 9 is not simply one of the world’s great symphonies: It is the greatest symphony ever written, the Mount Everest of classical music. All music written before that leads up to it, and all music written after it dissipates. It’s a conductors dream, a virtuosic piece for everyone in the orchestra.”
The sold-out audience in Sydney welcomed the musicians like returning heroes, applauding thunderously, and then settled in for Mahler’s darkly introspective masterpiece. Conducting from memory, Briger displayed the confidence and intensity of someone who had prepared all his life for just this concert. Given his reverence for Abbado’s interpretation, it came as no surprise that this was an intense, blood-on-the-floor performance. Briger and his musicians seemed determined to squeeze every ounce of drama from the score. Mahler fans can be fussy about this, and some would surely prefer more subtlety, something held back. But for many of us, there is something viscerally exciting about this approach.
It was a genuinely virtuosic performance, with flawless solo work and imposing coordination. The orchestra has a big, beefy string sound. The biggest European contingent comes from the orchestras of Germany and Austria, and somehow the other players have matched their sound.
The outer movements were daringly slow versus the sped-up interior movements. The intense outbursts contrasted with the gentlest possible playing, especially in the apocalyptic first movement. The Ländlers resonated quaintly before dissipating into dissonance. In the final minutes of the work, whispered at an achingly slow pace, the lights dimmed steadily until, at the end, only the podium was lit. The darkness continued as a few minutes of silence followed the final notes. The audience then responded with cheers and foot-stomping.
Was there something missing? Would a more permanent ensemble have provided a more coherent approach? Perhaps. But there is something thrilling about the sound from this ephemeral, curated, highly skilled pop-up orchestra, freed of habit, the ultimate flexible instrument in the hands of its conductor. This concert was a transcendent meditation, as Briger described the work itself, on “the acceptance of death and the celebration of beauty in life and in nature.”