Australian World Orchestra Opera House Concert
3 October 2013: Zubin said it all
J-Wire review by Fraser Beath McEwing
At his fifth and final curtain call at the end of the Sydney Opera House concert by the Australian World Orchestra, celebrated conductor, Zubin Mehta, held up his hands for silence.
"Do you realise what you've got here?" he sang out, indicating the 105 players behind him.
"Yes!" the audience chorused back.
"Don't let it go", he implored. Then, with a final bow, he strode into the wings.
It says something about the skill of Australian musicians when you find them represented in so many of the world's finest orchestras. It also says something about their sense of identity when more than 50 of them will take time away from their tenured positions and come home to play just one concert in Sydney and two in Melbourne. The other half of the players had been selected from the best Australian state orchestras. And as if this wasn't enough, maestro Zubin Mehta agreed to conduct the three concerts.
So much for the pedigrees, but what kind of a sound can 105 professional musicians, who have never played together before, produce? In a word: spectacular.
The concert comprised two lengthy works: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Mahler's first symphony. Both were perfectly suited to the task of showing the orchestra's capabilities. They offered vast variety of sound, from tiny, softly spoken ensembles to romantic outpourings to shuddering climaxes.
The effect of this orchestra was similar to having your ears flushed out, or maybe the first time you heard a super hi-fi set after being brought up on a kitchen radio. The AWO played with pinpoint accuracy, clarity and power seldom heard on the opera house stage. And the tone extracted from some of the brass and woodwind was nothing short of magical.
Zubin Mehta showed himself to be a conductor from another dimension, too. He stands before his orchestra scoreless. His movements are short and precise. He does not do a calisthenics workout like some conductors we've seen at the opera house; his feet never leave the floor. He leans a little, sways a little but guides every musician in front of him.
His instrument layout was a departure from standard too. He broke the violins into two sections, one either side of the podium, grouped the double bases (eight of them) on the left just behind the cellos, and stacked the eight horns at the back on the left. There is no doubt that the placement of instruments has an effect on the combined sound of the orchestra, but we'll never know how important that was to the performance.
The Rite of Spring opened the program, celebrating 100 years since it was written. The first part comprises eight scenes under the heading "Adoration of the Earth" and the second "Le Sacrifice" is in six scenes. It is confronting, stirring and passionate music, relying on surprise as it carries the listener on a lurching dance journey. At its premier in Paris in 1913 the audience become so stirred up that they might well have called the piece The Riot of Spring as they engaged in a good, old-fashioned punch up. Fortunately, the Sydney audience confined its passions to clapping the cheering the conductor and players.
The Mahler was no less stirring, especially in the finale where every instrument seemed to be competing for prominence. Although there was some extraordinary power generated by the brass and woodwinds, the percussion section won the day with the best tympani and bass drum playing I've witnessed in a long time.
Which brings me to the large string section of the orchestra. Neither of the two works offers much in the way of sustained string playing that you'd get from, say, Sibelius or Vaughn Williams. However, there is one section in the final movement of the Mahler that gathers the strings together without being bombarded by the back-rowers, and I listened carefully to it. Based on that brief sample, the AWO's string sound was breathtaking. I wanted to hear more, but I never will, not from this orchestra, because it will never exist again.
I suppose that is what made this concert so special – that it lit up the sky only once, and I was there.
The final word must go to artistic director and prominent Australian conductor, Alexander Briger. It was his idea and his ability to draw together and enthuse a team of people (including his uncle, the late Sir Charles Mackerras) that created the AWO and made the concerts happen.
The first was held in 2011 and the next one, with a different set of players, is planned for 2015.