At the end of yesterday’s concert, there was a lot of hugging on stage. This was only to be expected. The high-quality music-making to which the audience had been treated was, for the players, a brief and unrepeatable experience, for some of them a nostalgic pilgrimage back to their homeland. What we had heard and seen was the Australian World Orchestra, a group of home-grown players who currently are scattered across the globe in a range of high-profile orchestral positions (on stage were members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, the London and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, the Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus, etc.). The brainchild of Alexander Briger, this mostly expat group of musicians first came together in 2011 under the baton of the Hamburg-based Aussie Simone Young. This time around, the conductor was Zubin Mehta, whose eminence more than compensated for his non-Australianness.

Emma Jezel in the Australian World Orchestra
Emma Jezel in the Australian World Orchestra

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was an excellent choice for the first half, not just because 2013 marks the centenary of its infamous first performance. It has many moments which showcase a range of instruments (most famously the opening bassoon solo), and when played with gusto, it is almost guaranteed to be enthusiastically received. Mehta’s approach was perhaps on the solid side, controlled clamour rather than the “corybantic rupturing of laws” that Siegfried Sassoon heard in it. For instance, I wanted more wildness in the “Ritual of Abduction”, but the closing “Sacrifical Dance” did have the right implacable quality. One certainly had to admire the way in which he welded the musicians into a fairly seamless whole. Conducting without a score all night, the 77-year-old cut a fairly stolid figure on the podium, but his gestures therefore had all the more effect. The solos were uniformly excellent, with the tightness of the trumpet fanfares in the Part 1 finale deserving of particular commendation. In “Spring Rounds”, the strings really throbbed, making the sonic contrast to the woodwind response particularly effective.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 went through various programmatic guises and revisions before the composer settled on presenting it as an untitled four-movement work. That’s not what we got last night, however: instead, Mehta opted for the original five-movement version (without the program), reintroducing the serenade entitled “Blumine” after the opening movement. I was glad of an opportunity to hear this in situ, as nowadays it’s normally performed as a standalone item. However, it didn’t really add much to the experience of the work. It’s a somewhat saccharine piece, originally part of incidental music Mahler wrote for a play before he briefly incorporated it into the symphony. In comparison with other lyrical portions of the symphony, “Blumine” felt naïve: the waltz-like F major trio in the movement that followed (normally the second movement) is indeed schmaltzy, but it has the saving grace of ironic exaggeration. Or take the G major episode in the Funeral March: it’s similarly idyllic to start with, but is soon darkened by minor-mode inflections.

While there was a lot of internal shuffling of the players for the second half, there was no let-up in their commitment; if anything, the symphony was even more intense than the Rite. In the first movement, the growth of the introduction from the single high note was beautifully managed, and the pastoral first theme had a real freshness to it. Despite my reservations about the “Blumine” movement, it sounded fine in itself, with an especially warm trumpet melody at the beginning. The opening statement of the “Bruder Martin” theme in the Funeral March movement (a melody better known to English-speakers as “Frère Jacques”, though in the minor) is marked for double-bass solo in the score, but all eight players came in with it, a decision presumably taken for reasons of balance. The perky oboe second theme, often identified with a Jewish music, was phrased beautifully by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s own Diana Doherty, one of a sprinkling of faces recognised by this Sydneysider.

For my taste, the energetic main theme of the finale was a touch too measured: Mahler’s original programmatic title for the movement was “From Inferno to Paradise”, and it really could have done with a more hectic quality. Mehta allowed the song-like second theme a lot of space, and the magical stillness at the end of this section made the return of the tragic music seem all the more dramatic. As the music worked its way to the final hard-won triumph, the horns stood for their climactic delivery of the chorale theme, which furthered for me the resemblance the theme has to the Hallelujah Chorus (specifically, the motive associated with “And he shall reign for ever and ever”). The thrilling ending merited the deep-throated audience roar that followed the final chords.

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