World class: why our best musicians come home

Sometimes we forget that Australia is a small country (in terms of population) compared to the rest of the world. In fact, we have a population less than one-tenth of the US and one-thirtieth of that of Europe.

So, if you are in a specialised field, sometimes you have to move overseas to find the right job for you. And this is especially important if you want a career in classical music.

With only a small number of professional orchestras in Australia, staffed by musicians who stay in their roles for incredibly long periods of time – many for more than 20 years – there aren’t a lot of career opportunities in this country.

There are apparently more than 1200 symphony orchestras in the US, compared to about 30 in Australia (and not all of these are professional).

Many of our most talented up-and-coming classical players, and even a few long-standing superstars, need to move overseas for work.

The sad result of all of this is that many Australians have never heard some of our best classical musicians – unless they have been visiting Berlin, London, Chicago, or even Stuttgart.

However, for the last five years, conductor and artistic director, Alexander Briger has made it his mission to bring some of these world-class Australian musicians home for a special concert series. Briger formed the Australian World Orchestra in 2011, and since then has delivered extraordinary musical experiences to more than 30,000 music lovers in Australia, India and Singapore.

Guest conductors during this time have included Sir Simon Rattle, Stanley Dodds and Zubin Mehta and concerts have featured some of talented Australian performers, including sopranos Cheryl Barker and Greta Bradman, plus mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena.

Briger conducting the 2011 inaugural Australian World Orchestra concert season in rehearsal and finishing with concert footage of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture 

It took two years to get the orchestra project going, says Briger, but it’s been an overwhelming success.

“When we did it in 2011, it was such a massive idea that nobody could believe it could actually happen,” he says.

“It took a long time for us to get it done, but when it did, everyone was sort of dumbfounded that it had happened. And then, when we got Zubin to come in, they were also equally dumbfounded. Same thing when Simon Rattle came. It's an amazing, amazing orchestra and we're very, very proud of it. It's been a journey, that's for sure.”

20150714_AWO_Alexander -Briger -conductor -headshot
Briger has been at the helm of many orchestras, including the Israel Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and Ensemble InterContemporain 

Briger is based in Paris himself – as a conductor, he finds it essential to be close to the big European orchestras.

“If you want to have that sort of international career I’m afraid that, as a conductor anyway, you've really got to be based over there. It's one of those choices you make. And it’s the same thing, I suppose, with musicians, orchestral musicians. If you want to play in the Berlin Philharmonic, you’ve got to be there. You can't be in Sydney and hope that they’re going to call you, because they won’t.”

For many of the musicians of the AWO it has become a great way to include a visit home to see their families – and for their families to see them perform, which might be something that rarely happens.

“There was one player, an oboist, in our first year, who's done very, very well – Nick Deutsch, he's actually the artistic director now of Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) – and I remember him telling me that his mother had never seen him play, because she has a fear of flying.

“He had never played in Australia because he left when he was young. He’d had jobs all over the world, but his mum had never seen him. And then he came home and joined this orchestra, and finally his mum got to see him on the stage.”

This year, Briger is bringing home another great classical music export, conductor Simone Young, to lead musicians from the AWO and ANAM in a spectacular one-off performance of Olivier Messiaen’s orchestral masterpiece Turangalila-Symphonie at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.

The partnership with ANAM is particularly special as Briger says that all of the members of the orchestra are keen to mentor and work with emerging young musicians.

AWO-in -performance -Anna -Kucera -300x 450
AWO brings together Australia’s successful classical musicians from around the world

“As with a lot of organisations, we're very keen on education, and giving back,” he says. “And particularly our players, because they all come from the Australian Youth Orchestra.”

“For a lot of the younger musicians in Australia, their idols are musicians who play in this orchestra, because they are in the Berlin Philharmonic, or the Chicago Symphony – they’ve made it. So if you ask them, ‘Who's your favourite player?’ They actually come up with, ‘Oh, Michael Mulcahy because he's the principal trombonist of the Chicago Symphony. And he just happens to be Australian."

“Since the beginning we’ve had an academy where we’ve placed a few younger members into the actual orchestra. And they’ve rehearsed with us and played with us. And then we've teamed up with the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO), so that we would do master classes.

“This year we thought we’d take it to the next level. Let's do a really big concert, and we'll put one of our musicians next to a young musician who's really about to become a professional. So we also had this partnership with ANAM, down in Melbourne. We thought that’d be great. Okay, let's do a really, really difficult piece. And not often done in Australia, so it's really interesting for our musicians, for the young musicians, and also for the audience. So that's why we came up with the Turangalîla-Symphonie.”

And, for those music lovers outside of Melbourne, the AWO is also presenting a new group – the AWO Chamber 8 On Tour – with eight of Australia’s finest musicians performing Beethoven’s Horn Septet and Dvorák’s Double Base Quintet in a tour to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, as well as the full orchestra playing in Melbourne on July 29.


See www.australianworldorchestra.com.au for details and tickets.

Read more:

Image credit: Anna Kucera