Rattling the bars

July 30, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A full house, plenty of celebrities and Sir Simon Rattle conducting a uniquely superb orchestra could hardly miss being the standout event of the Sydney (and probably Australian) classical music calendar…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

This was the biennial gathering of the Australian World Orchestra to play two concerts in Sydney and one in Melbourne. Later in the year it will assemble again in India to be conducted by Zubin Mehta.

 with husband Sir Simon Rattle   Photo: Prudence Upton

Magdalena Kozena with husband Sir Simon Rattle Photo: Prudence Upton

The AWO comprises Australian players who are permanent members of leading overseas orchestras blended with the best current players from Australian state orchestras. Through arrangement complexities that beggar belief, they assemble and briefly rehearse to produce a sound, while unpredictable, is likely to be the best that can be.

The 2015 AWO did not disappoint. Even though these players sat down together for the first time, their excellence as musicians carried them across the unfamiliarity gap into the territory of sublime orchestral playing. A key ingredient to the mix, of course, was to secure the services of leading international UK-born conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who took time out from his duties with the Berlin Philharmonic to wrap the AWO package.

This was no ordinary concert. The audience settled in front of an empty stage until the house lights dimmed and the players entered to applause driven by the joy of a family reunion. Sir Simon Rattle followed to a similar reception.


Sir Simon Rattle conducts the AWO Photo: Prudence Upton

Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn opened the program and immediately established the ‘AWO 2015’ sound. I can best describe it as being fur-free. Because symphony orchestras comprise musicians of varying standards, their various sections can seldom play as one. Thus you get subtle, but nonetheless furry edges to passages. Because the individuals of the AWO are so good, the fur does not exist and you get purity of sound.

This was apparent from the very first flute entry of the Debussy Prelude and it never varied. The strings played as a block, while the brass and woodwinds were always bound tightly together.

Debussy remained in the spotlight with his Forgotten Songs, sung by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, who doubles as Mrs Rattle when they’re off stage. The songs were originally written with piano accompaniment but for this occasion violist and composer Brett Dean (who played his viola in the AWO) wrote an orchestral accompaniment. Although Kozena has a rich and powerful mezzo

Sir Simon Rattle in action   Photo:   Prudence Upton

Sir Simon Rattle in action Photo: Prudence Upton

voice it was a big ask to be heard above the orchestra except on the forte notes. That didn’t stop the audience calling her back for an encore in which she sang Canteloube’s Songs Of The Auvergne. It worked better than the Debussy.

The orchestra returned to full strength after interval ready to tackle Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 – the 1890 version edited by Robert Haas.

If ever there was a piece written to show off an orchestra and push it to its limits, it is Bruckner’s eighth. In four movements and spanning well over an hour, it goes from muttering woodwinds and quietly gossiping strings to grand sweeps with blocks of screaming brass and percussion thunder.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Bruckner was a highly religious man and praising God was never far from his composing pen.

Rattle conduced this demanding symphony without a score, earlier remarking that it was burned into his soul. He drew miracles from the orchestra with precise and highly animated conducting and after the final climactic height had been scaled he picked his way between the players to point out the stars – of whom there were many.

Another interesting point about the orchestra was that many of the players changed seats when they came back after interval. This bore out the contention by artistic director, Alexander  Briger, that participating musicians are so pleased to be included that where they sit is not important. A leader in one work is happy to move to the back row for another. And at the end of the concert the musicians stood and embraced one another. I’ve never seen that happen before.

Despite hefty ticket prices, the AWO phenomenon is not a profitable venture. Just staging it at the Opera House is a huge enough expense without flying in and accommodating more than 50 players.

The concert will be performed again in Sydney on Friday, July 31.  Bookings here.

The Australian World Orchestra will perform in Melbourne on Saturday, August 1. Bookings here.

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.


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