The idea of bringing together a country’s best players from all around the world to show off their combined might is all too familiar for football fans during any FIFA World Cup. It is far less common, indeed, almost unknown in classical music. Yet this is exactly the principle on which the Australian World Orchestra operates, brought together biannually for a brief season by an excellent management team under the artistic direction of Alexander Briger. The inaugural 2011 AWO concerts were conducted by another expatriate Australian, Simone Young; in 2013 Zubin Mehta triumphed in Melbourne and Sydney. The same two cities hosted the 2015 concerts under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

Magdalena Kožená © Mathias Bothor | DG
Magdalena Kožená
© Mathias Bothor | DG

The concept is splendid, the results brilliant and full credit to the organisers who managed to create a massive budget in a country often praised for its generous support of sport events but rarely of the arts. The overseas musicians, gathered from some 40 countries, shared the podium in approximately equal numbers with local colleagues from most, though by no means all, of the major Australian orchestras. The brand and the notion seem to suggest that a larger proportion of Australian players working overseas (of which there are many more) are involved; the selection criteria have not been discussed much publicly. Notwithstanding that, the point is hard to argue when the concerts produced a world-class orchestral sound, artistic imagination and professional enthusiasm seldom offered on the far side of the world.

But then, how could you not be enthusiastic when Sir Simon Rattle is “Master and Commander” of the job at hand? His deeply felt passion coupled with a supreme grasp of the score transpires as soon as he steps onto the podium. Although he possesses impeccable technical skills, his beats are seldom recognisable in a conventional manner. Like truly great conductors, with calm gestures, expressive hand movements and never-ceasing eye contact, he allows his musicians to play and the music to radiate, unhindered and natural.

He stood absolutely motionless at the start of the concert, letting the principal flute to begin on her own with the softest and most sublime sound I ever heard at the beginning of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. With boundless yet subtle changes of tone colour and fluctuation of the tempo in almost every bar, Debussy’s meditative tone poem found its gentle way to its audience, like the current of a brook finding its way downhill.

The same composer’s selection of songs on Paul Verlaine’s poems, Ariettes oubliées, followed in a very similar emotional state. The cycle was orchestrated by eminent Australian composer Brett Dean who, being a former member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, also participated as a member of the viola section. His stylish setting of the six songs suited their fin de siècle atmosphere beautifully, without actually losing track of his own compositional language. The original songs (written for soprano) had to be transposed down in order to suit the vocal range of mezzo Magdalena Kožená, who sang with flair and great diction. The transposition was probably behind some almost unavoidable balance problems, as some of the lower notes of the soloist’s otherwise finely nuanced voice were less defined and struggled occasionally to stay on top of the orchestral texture.

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no.8 in C minor in its revised version (1890) was composed in close proximity to the two Debussy pieces but reflects a completely different musical direction. This mighty work, an eternal challenge to orchestras and conductors, is deeply rooted in Classical traditions while pushing the Romantic excesses of the German speaking composers to the extreme. Featuring eight separate horn parts (four of them also playing Wagner tubas) apart from the usual mix of trumpets, trombones and tuba, it often sounds aggressive and military. Not so in the Sydney Concert Hall: the brass sound presented a rarely heard warmth, colour and transparent resonance. Rattle’s control over the internal workings of his orchestra showed in a myriad of details. His dynamic changes were supple and expressive without being ostentatious; themes were passed on between instrument groups with self-explanatory elegance; tempos changed as the musical instance required them rather than following written instructions. The string sound roared with an edge when appropriate or pleaded tenderly in barely audible passages without ever losing quality, and no wood-wind melody got lost due to balance problems.

Mutual trust, camaraderie are words seldom mentioned in professional orchestras. Yet, the success of the night was partly due to a palpable sense of highly qualified comrades working towards the common goal. It was also expressed in the most unusual way when upon the conclusion of the concert, all the desk partners in the orchestra said farewell to each other on stage with hugs and warm handshakes.