Sunday, July 28, 2019

Australian World Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, 27 July 27. Reviewed by GRAHAM MCDONALD.

AWO. Photo: Peter Hislop
THIS is a big orchestra. 80 musicians, including 60 string players, mostly mid-career professional orchestral musicians from Australian and European orchestras.
These are musicians at the height of their musical abilities enjoying the opportunity to perform with an orchestra of their peers. There were smiles all around as they walked onto the stage, with nods and waves to friends in the audience. This quickly turned to focused attention on the music as they were joined by the conductor and musical director Alexander Briger. 
The first work was Nigel Westlake’s Flying Dreams,  a reworking of his orchestral score for the 2015 film Paper Planes. This is a work full or complex orchestration, with layers of shifting tonal colour. It takes advantage of the size of the orchestra with each section blending together, yet distinct. The immediate impression was a wonderful balance of sound. Smaller orchestras can struggle balancing the brass with the strings and woodwinds, but here it just worked.
This was followed by Taras Bulba, a Rhapsody for Orchestra by the Czech composer Leos  Janáček. This work also took advantage of the size of the orchestra, with the addition of an organ, harp and four percussionists. Janacek was fascinated by Russia and much of his work had Russian themes. Taras Bulba is based on a novella by Gogol  and tells the story of the various unpleasant deaths of the Cossack Taras Bulba and his two sons. There is romance, battles and executions depicted in the score of this fascinating piece of music. This work is a particular favourite of Briger and the orchestra responded to his enthusiasm with vigour and precision.

Par of the strings section. Photo: Peter Hislop

The final work in the program was Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 by Jean Sibelius. This did not quite seem to have the cohesion of the first two works, but still a stirring performance and final few minutes building to the climactic ending was orchestral playing at its most inspiring. 
The delight of the musicians was obvious and the audience could sense they relished the chance to play in this orchestra. As the audience were leaving the eight bass players remained on stage so they could have a group photo taken, grins still on their faces. It said a lot about how the musicians felt.
This concert was the second of only two performances this year. There is no performance in Sydney and curious that no members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra are included in the AWO. Perhaps clashes of schedules intervened.