A crown of thorns between the roses

AUSTRALIAN WORLD ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

City Recital Hall, Angel Place

Thursday June 3

Alexander Briger

Any attempt to restore a sense of the normal is welcome, particularly a mammoth exercise like the Australian World Orchestra’s re-appearance. In the good old days, conductor Alexander Briger could draw on resources from all over the world, inviting back home many willing expatriate musicians to take part in a small number of concerts played only in Sydney and Melbourne over a couple of nights, picking up players from across the nation to flesh out the desks. Also, Briger and his board could attract top-notch conductors who were up to the exhausting trip from Europe or America.

The last time I can recall coming across the AWO was in 2017 when the seasoned professionals combined with some musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music to work through Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie under Simone Young. A large-frame score, this was representative of the organization’s ambition and, if the results on that night in Melbourne proved more satisfying for the attempt than the achievement, you could hardly say that the enterprise was simply marking time, just giving its actual and potential patrons a continuation of that diet which the state symphony orchestras provide in full, year after year.

With the pandemic frustrating any hopes of visitors, Briger put together a smaller-than-usual corps and tailored an entertainment-experience that followed a conservative path for two-thirds of the night. To open, the players worked through Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and they closed with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. Where an old-style program would have inserted a concerto, the AWO gave the premiere of Paul Deans Symphony, commissioned by Briger for this orchestra and which turned out to be a stern sermon on the subject of despoliation, if not destruction, with only fleeting signs of light. It could be taken as a commentary on the climate catastrophe or it might be a grim perspective on humanity’s lack of regard for oncoming disaster. Whatever the case, the work had to be tailored for the resources of the Schumann score, even though Briger feels that the work needs a broader gamut of orchestral possibilities and weight.

Without a list provided of the players and their provenance, the telecast occasionally turned into a game of Spot the Musician as you suddenly realised that some of these AWO performers were very familiar faces, while others featured as half-remembrances of things past. For example, the timpanist who made his mark quickly through the Coriolan introduction – single strokes of penetrating power in bars 3, 7, 1 ,12 and 13 – seemed to me to come from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but a check of the organization’s home page disproved that impression. In fact, this timpani prominence began a more significant process: accustoming yourself to the Angel Place space’s acoustic properties which sounded pretty dry through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall system, benevolently brought into place when the AWO’s scheduled Melbourne visit turned out to be impossible.

Briger led a brisk reading of the overture which held some unexpected points of interest. For instance, the conductor let the cellos and basses set the running between bars 118 and 140, so that the upper strings and woodwind, carrying the main motive burden, were cast into second place. But the orchestra had no difficulty handling this score, most of the explosive chords that punctuate its progress coming off with minimal scatter-gun effect, the texture pierced by some excellent, if brief, solo exposures, like the second bassoon’s chain of minims at bar 234. The last bars also proved effective and moving as Beethoven prefigures his hero’s doom with that dwindling cello line: the only sign of motion across this bleak conclusion to a work packed with fierce tragedy.

Briger directed an eloquent interpretation of the Schumann work which gave all three choirs multiple opportunities to demonstrate their eloquence in ensemble work. For instance, you had to be moved by the splendidly voiced chorale from the woodwind at bar 15, which lasts for an all-too-brief four bars before the rest of the orchestra returns, but which startled for its unforced vigour and timbral purity. Then, the burst into action at Schumann’s (eventual) Allegro ma non troppo showed the players’ communal verve while the benefit of having first-class musicians shone out in the seamless jockeying between both sets of violins in the movement’s central development, and again in the later stage of the recapitulation pages with that requirement for syncopated block woodwind chords, which to my ear came across with thrilling precision. In fact, the only problem I had with this first movement came with the rallentando in its last seven bars which sounded to me like the conclusion to the Sibelius E flat Symphony, except that there the pauses are inbuilt.

But, at several times during the performance, I was faced with enough detail discrepancies to generate the belief that Briger’s score was more up-to-musicological-date than my venerable Breitkopf & Hartel.

The strings distinguished themselves yet again at the onset of the Scherzo second movement because of their pliant address in a skittering set of pages. You got so comfortable with their brilliant and continuous edge that their block dialogue with the woodwind in Schumann’s first Trio impressed as a dynamic coup de theatre. While the first maintained its crispness, the second Trio provided the perfect contrast through its (eventual) lush texture when the groups coalesce at Rehearsal Letter M in my score, about 17 measures before the composer starts harking back to his principal theme. Another unexpected move came with an accelerando at the start of the Coda which, when you think about it, makes complete sense because its effect is to refresh some familiar material.

With the plangent Adagio espressivo, Briger and his forces spaced themselves across its soundscape, using plenty of rubato as well as following the brief crescendo-diminuendo directions with tact alongside none-too-disruptive sforzandi. This mobility came within a whisker of self-satire only once, but the style of attack gave considerable breadth to a movement that can sound like whining, probably not helped by the application at odd moments of a slight portamento in the violins. On the other hand, the woodwind continued along their blameless path with some brilliantly flavoured duets above the violins’ high chromatic descending trills just before Letter O.

Not everybody kept precisely on the beat in the Allegro molto vivace finale when Schumann introduces crotchet triplets across the bar, although the middle strings made a rapid recovery. But for a music that is optimistic and inherently brassy, the orchestra en masse responded with sterling energy through pages that recalled the seemingly endless exercises and patterns of the last movement to Schubert’s 9th. The whole march moved deftly to a finely judged set of soft brass calls leading into a L’istesso tempo conclusion of high excitement, carried off with a panache that made you think that this confected orchestra might actually be capable of achieving a world-class standard of performance.

Preceding the Schumann symphony, the AWO presented its youthful branch, an orchestra of young players with a few senior players scattered around the strings and prominent in the brass. Under conductor Patrick Brennan, the group played the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6. From the start, the body’s violins sounded hesitant, nowhere near as loud as they should be leading up to the vivo in bar 13. But then, this group had troubles with the frequent changes of pace across this piece. A reasonable performance, but an odd interpolation, no matter how high-minded its intentions.

Dean’s Symphony, in its bald title, brought to mind Webern’s Op. 21. That’s where any correspondences stop. The Australian work is substantial, passing through four movements and giving full vent and playing-time to its matter. Dean opens with some woodwind scattered around the auditorium (the film crew had access to only one – a flautist up in the gallery) playing bird calls above sustained and soft string chords: a pastoral opening, then, to bring to mind our world at its quiescent best. An Allegro opened out with chugging basses and the tone changed to an acerbic sound, strong on dissonances although the language seemed to me about as complex as that of Tippett. Any listener could discern specific patterns and an elliptical melodic framework for the violins, but the movement is mainly aggressive, strong on texture if not on development. Also, at this stage, I think I saw David Berlin from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in there with the cellos.

Dean’s second movement began for me with the discovery of Wilma Smith, one-time MSO concertmaster, in the first violin ranks. Not that she had much to do at the start here, bars that were populated by melancholy-sounding woodwind weaving a threnody by themselves. I was distracted again on detecting Justin Williams at the front desk of the violas. Continuing the air of gloom, if not despair, Dean employs muted trumpets and a trombone trio with pizzicati double bass notes to construct yet another landscape of hopelessness. At which stage I believe I found Kirsty McCahon in the bass quartet. In any case, the strings continued with the threnody (and I may be mistaken, but it might have been the MSO’s former regular Michelle Wood leading the cellos) leading to an increase in intensity and breadth of output that led to a large-scale highpoint, reminiscent of Mahler.

Despite its dour temperament, this movement held some momentary pleasures, like an intervallic interplay passage for horns and a sombre oboe solo cutting through the low-pitched textures before the other woodwind joined in a slowly weaving counterpoint. At which point I think I found the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Julian Thompson in the cellos. A faster pace (I think) turned a surging violin escalation, punctuated by dramatic timpani strokes, to yet another climactic point, as dissonant and perturbing as its predecessor. Then, a de-escalation until the piccolo returned us to a mid-way emotional point with a bird-imitating solo above a layer of sustained string chords, reminiscent of the symphony’s opening pages.

The following scherzo gave hefty work to the low strings, with motivic interplay the name of the game. This movement quickly showed itself to be of a piece with its predecessors although the harmonic bite sounded more insistent, the dissonances more pronounced and clearly etched. Snatches of melody were instantly squashed, the metre was relaxed from regularity and then came an intense return to the bitterness of the movement’s start, as though we had been following a classic ternary form pattern.

The finale opened with whispering basses and cellos under low trombone chords and rumbling timpani. The composer was not going to provide a ray of redeeming light in this atmosphere of foreboding. As we had heard several times before, patterns built to a highpoint that died out before oboe and clarinet rise out of the subterranean murmur. Another large-scale outburst emerged from strings and timpani; it wove back down to silence apart from a sustained viola note from which clarinet and piccolo emerged in a duet. The strings took back their primacy, moving to a loud shudder that cut off to leave the basses muttering. But then, the work moved to a rhetorical, almost Straussian declaration, timpani cutting across the maelstrom of brass and string chords, the work coming to the time-honoured big finish but not one that left you elated; rather, if truth be told, grimly appreciative of a score that impresses in the end for its devotion to its task and the intransigence of its statements.

As a composite, this Symphony made both a firm statement of scouring intention from the composer as well as a remarkable and testing piece for the willing participants. Mind you, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear it again; perhaps it’s better kept for a return visit when there’s more light glowing on our various horizons