THE Australian World Orchestra is coming to Canberra for the first time.
Established in 2011 by Janáček expert and conductor Alexander Briger and his sister, the businesswoman and filmmaker, Gabrielle Thompson, the 90-strong orchestra comprises a 50-50 mix of local and international musicians who fly in for a week to perform – and they’re all Aussies!
Conductors over the years have included Briger himself, Australia’s Simone Young, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti and Sir Simon Rattle, who once described the AWO as “one of the great orchestras in the world”.
Realising that wherever he conducted in the US or Europe, there were Australian musicians holding key positions, Briger settled down with Thompson over a bottle of red wine on his Sydney balcony to spout ideas for an all-Australian symphony orchestra – a sort of “Barbarians” or “The Socceroos” of Australian music, as he puts it.
“It’s become a bit of a family business,” he says. You can say that again, Thompson is now the company’s CEO and their late uncle, the famous conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, was its founding patron.
“I didn’t know how to go about getting it up as I have no financial background. My sister is 10 years older than me and, as a film producer, she knew a lot,” he says.
“I asked her and she thought it was fantastic, that’s how it started and we’ve been together ever since.”
They’ve performed in Australia in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, in India and in Singapore.
“We’re the only one in the world,” he says. “There is Japan’s Virtuoso Symphony Orchestra, but that has musicians working within Japan only, then there’s the World Orchestra for Peace, but that’s full of different nationalities… We’re the only one that is entirely made up of Australian musicians for all of our work.”
With 50 per cent of Australians who work abroad and 50 per cent locals, they’re able to mount a large major orchestra.
Money is very much on his mind. They have private and government help, as well as significant corporate philanthropy, such as the Sofitel Group, which has provided accommodation from the outset.
“It’s costly to have all those orchestral musicians here and our conductors are much more expensive – I do it free, of course,” he says.
This year he’ll be conducting the AWO himself for the first time in three years, both in Llewellyn Hall and Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.
Legendary Canberra musician Max McBride will be principal double bass.
“I specialise in Janáček so I’ve chosen his rhapsody for orchestra, ‘Taras Bulba’, an amazing piece of music,” says Briger.
As well, the AWO will perform Nigel Westlake’s “Flying Dream” and, to end, Sibelius’ masterpiece, Symphony No. 2.
Making no apologies for the lushness of the sounds, he says: “This is a really big, chunky orchestra with a big, fat, romantic sound.”
Australian World Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, 7.30pm, July 27. Book at australianworldorchestra.com.au or 8283 4527.