Australian World Orchestra is among the best: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 3, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The choice of two major symphonies by Brahms and Tchaikovsky gave the Australian World Orchestra the chance to shine at the Sydney Opera House last night. And shine it did.

Fraser Beath McEwing

It is interesting to note that both the Brahms Symphony No.2 in D majorand the Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4 in F minorwere written in the same year, 1877, yet are so totally different in style. Brahms seemed to be paying homage to the classical period whereas Tchaikovsky was unapologetically diving headlong into the romantic. This provided a look at both sides of the same time-coin – although I doubt the programmers used this as their starting point.

Because the AWO is an amalgam of Australian musicians currently playing in leading orchestras here and around the world, every time it gathers in Australia for a performance it sounds different, simply because it comprises different players. Added to that, the conductor changes too. The only constant is a superlative level of musicianship.

This time around 43 players came home to make music and were joined by an equal number of leading members of Australian state orchestras and ensembles. Also arriving on a jet plane was Italian Maestro Riccardo Muti, one of the world’s most celebrated conductors. Previous conductors for the AWO have included Simone Young, Zubin Mehta and Sir Simon Rattle.

Riccardo Muti

There was a special moment of expectation last night when the imposing Muti raised his baton, the audience delivered its last cough and the spirit of Brahms materialised from the ether with cellos, double basses and horns. Certainly, we were listening to the quiet, foggy opening of his Symphony No. 2 in D majorOp. 73, but we were also experiencing a unique sound – never heard before and, after two more performances, never to be heard live again. It became immediately obvious that this orchestra was exceptional. I’d place the AWO high among the best symphony orchestras of my experience. And while I’m in raving mode, I’ve never heard a better Brahms second live performance. The reason is simple: every AWO player is outstanding in his or her own right. Together they bestowed a rare gift: razor-sharp coordination – yet we were always aware of the individual instrumental elements that made up the whole. This bordered on magic.

The Tchaikovsky was equally spectacular but in a different way. If ever there was an orchestral work written to stir the emotions of an audience it is Tchaikovsky’s fourth.It brought forth more tonal variation than the Brahms and demonstrated the AWO’s versatility. There were passages where the strings played so quietly you had to concentrate to hear it, but when Muti called for explosions it was exhilarating. The third, pizzicato movement would have had the audience bopping in the isles if this had been a pop concert but the fourth movement would have knocked them flat when all the forces gathered to smash their way to the end in a shower of sparks.

Although the 2018 AWO is an orchestra out of the box, Riccardo Muti was equally spectacular as its conductor. His style is not generally calisthenic, but when he gets wound up he is given to becoming briefly airborne with enthusiasm. At other times he simply stands and listens, smiling approval at his players. I loved his reading of both symphonies, while his cranial thatch must have the envy of every thinning or bald-headed man in the audience.

The concert finished not with the Tchaikovsky, but a promised ‘Verdi surprise’, which turned out to be the overture to Nabuccoas an encore.  Did we need it? I didn’t, for one, because I wanted to depart uplifted by the symphonies. And while I’m grumping away I didn’t think throwing streamers on to the stage added anything to a superb musical experience. Having said that, the concept and realisation of the AWO is to be applauded to the echo. The Opera House should have been full to overflowing because you’d only get that kind of quality performance by searching overseas.

AWO Opera House concert 3 May 2018

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


2 Responses to “Australian World Orchestra is among the best: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Elizabeth Briger says:

    Wonderful review, thank you. I wondered why Alexander Briger was not included as one of the AWO conductors, having conducted AWO on serveral occasions?

  2. Judy Katz says:

    Absolut disgrace how much HAIR at his age that man has!! I noticed with glee that he turned rather portly!
    A memorable performance! More please.

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