SHAP­ING SOUND

In con­ver­sa­tion with Alexan­der Briger.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Luke Slat­tery

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.

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