In conversation with Alexander Briger.
Alexander Briger, Founder and Artistic Director of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), sees the conductor as both an artist and a craftsman whose role is to shape sound. The audience observes a figure in black, carving crescents in the air with a baton in hand while raising, lowering and flourishing the other. But the orchestra, poised before the maestro, is alert to their every movement - from the tilt of the torso to the arch of a brow.
“Each movement, each gesture is directed at shaping the music,” Briger explains. “Conducting is body language taken to extremes.”
Shaping, an action usually associated with constructing, sculpting and fashioning physical objects, is the core of the process. “Once the conductor has managed to get everybody together – that’s the first part – their job is to interpret the music in an individual way and to shape that interpretation for an orchestra that may have played the piece many times before and undoubtedly has its own interpretation,” says Briger.
Briger is the nephew of the renowned Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who won the first prize at the 1993 International Competition for Conductors. The idea for the AWO had been kicking around for a decade and was raised whenever Australian instrumentalists working in European orchestras collided at performances, airports and bars. In 2010, after one of many European gigs, Briger returned home resolved to ‘make it happen’. And he did. In 2011 Briger managed to reel in around 100 Australian instrumentalists for a grand Australian musical reunion at the Sydney Opera House.
The inaugural season saw Briger and Hamburg based Australian, Simone Young, take up the role as guest conductor; two years later Briger enticed the evergreen Zubin Mehta to the stage. Mehta was to lead the orchestra in the Sydney and Melbourne performances of Ivor Stravinsky’s sprightly Rite of Spring and Gustav Mahler’s magisterial Symphony No. 1.
The AWO had its first rehearsal in 2011 with Young and it was immediately clear that the orchestra of peripatetic Australians, sharing little other than nationality, had a clearly definable sound. “The tension in the room was unbearable,” recalls Briger. “They were all sitting next to their peers, and every member of the orchestra knew just how good the other players were, and who they played for. They were so nervous.” Young looked around and joked: “I feel like I’m looking at the Australian Youth Orchestra with wrinkles”.
“They really gave it their all during those rehearsals,” says Briger, who conducted Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in that inaugural year. “It was no small thing. They’d been dreaming of this and had finally pulled it off.” Most of the instrumentalists are based in the German-speaking music-sphere – one tenth of the AWO is Vienna-based – and that rich, fluid and robust sound was to dominate the newly established orchestra.
“I remember during that first year a violinist from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra came to me and confessed that for some inexplicable reason she’d changed her sound to match the orchestra and it had become more beefy and romantic,” Briger recalls. “She couldn’t work out why but it had, almost beyond her control. Bizarre. It was one of those mysteries of human nature.” Briger, as the AWO’S Artistic Director, Chief Conductor and Founding Impresario, was acutely aware of the artistic risks involved in establishing a new orchestra comprised of an ensemble of top-flight instrumentalists who had been shaped by their own distinguished careers. However, since its inception, the AWO has become such an uplifting ensemble that Mehta has been promoting the company as one of the best in the world.
In August 2015, star conductor and Artistic Director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, will lead the AWO in a program with Anton Bruckner’s heavy-duty Symphony No. 8 as the centre piece. Briger is expecting wonderful things from Rattle’s collaboration with the AWO. “The eighth symphony, which was later known as The Apocalyptic, is the perfect choice” he says, “the symphony is so big and beefy. Bruckner works in big brass sections all in harmonic unison, and it’s the same with the strings and winds; Rattle is superb at building that kind of sound.”
Conductors bring their own distinct personality to the podium and Briger has studied a few as a keen student of the craft. “Mehta is pretty diplomatic when he works and his focus is on rhythm; he likes it to be incredibly tight. Rattle is a lot more about colours and sounds, and he can be very funny. I’ve heard him announce to the Berlin Philharmonic that he wants the sound to be ‘a little more blue.”
“But somehow the orchestra gets it as soon as he starts to conduct. They watch his eyes, and his movements, and his eyebrows, and every little movement in his body. They know they have to adapt and allow themselves to be moulded. This is the mark of a truly great conductor. The body shows everything, expresses everything. Every movement means something.”
Rattle’s predecessor at the Berlin Philharmonic, the late Claudio Abbado, was the most kinetic conductor Briger has observed at work. “He was a terrible rehearser,” Briger recalls. “He just had no clue what to say to the orchestra. Rehearsal, according to the musicians, was a free for all. Once it came to the performance, his small stature would transform to cover and command the orchestra. It was as if the music was coming out of his baton. His performances were second to none.” However, he adds as an aside, it is not absolutely necessary to conduct with a baton. The French conductor Pierre Boulez famously only used his hands – “gorgeous hands” as Briger describes them.
In speaking to students about the qualities of a good conductor, Briger preaches the virtues of a good ear and baton technique to penetrate into the heart of the score, to understand the composer and his time; and true to testament and on the day of this interview, Briger was brushing up on Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 for a performance with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
For a conductor to scale the heights of his art, Briger believes experience in conducting opera, with its great array of musical forces, is essential. “All the greatest conductors come from opera.” The greats, in his view, all possess an innate quality that can’t be taught: charisma.
“If you want to go far, it’s important that people are drawn to you. That’s a mysterious quality. Maybe it’s some force around the body – an aura. An orchestra will make its mind up about a conductor before they have even lifted their arms. When you are walking out onto a podium for the first time the orchestra is looking at you, forming an opinion. They can sense by the way you are moving, by your arms, your eyes – some kind of electricity – whether or not you’ll be able to do something interesting. They’ve worked this out even before the first downbeat. It’s all about personality.”
The Australian World Orchestra will open its 2015 Season in Sydney, Australia on 29 July 2015.