Sydney Opera House, October 4, 2013

After a long standing ovation Zubin Mehta hushed the delirious Sydney Opera House crowd and, pointing to the orchestra behind him said: “Do you realise what you’ve got here?” After a resounding “yes” from the audience, the 77-year-old maestro added: “Don’t let go of them!”

The 105 musicians he was referring to were the Australian World Orchestra who are performing three concerts – one in Sydney and two in Melbourne – as a follow-up to their dazzling debut under conductor Alexander Briger two years ago. Made up of stalwarts from Australia’s orchestras as well as ex-pats working in Europe, Asia and America, the AWO didn’t put a foot wrong in their sophomore tour and the music just seemed to leap off the page. “They are such fine musicians,” Mehta told Limelight before the concert. “Even if they haven’t all grown up with each other, they know the repertoire they are playing inside out and they’ll have such fun playing with each other and being in each other’s company.”

AWO founder and artistic director, Briger, backed by his uncle, the late Sir Charles Mackerras, launched the orchestra in 2011, flying in musicians from all over the world. The sheer logistics of this undertaking are staggering enough, but to hook a big fish like Mehta so soon after its inception defies belief. With his imprimatur on the outfit, who knows what the future holds for this band?

Two seminal works were chosen for this program. Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring revolutionised music when it was premiered 100 years ago. It still thrills with its pounding rhythms and daring harmonies, which still cause a frisson today. This work was Mehta’s choice and it is easy to see why. He brings to it a visceral, exhilarating energy combined with crystal clarity. His rostrum manner is precise but unfussy. Conducting from memory he conveys the sense that the music is the thing. And what a rich opportunity this work provides for an orchestra to lay out its wares. From the opening bassoon solo the woodwind section has a field day – p – this was heady playing from the start. The twin timpanists gave the Dance of the Earth section a deeply satisfying air of menace.

If Stravinsky’s masterpiece had never sounded better, more was to come in the second half. Briger had asked Mehta for a Mahler symphony and he chose the First – the Titan. Mahler’s debut in this form still amazes audiences – it’s as if he has emerged from the womb fully formed. In his words the work encompasses the world, from the famous tentative cuckoo calls of the opening movement to its joyful climax 53 minutes later. Again, under Mehta’s baton, every note was made to count and this stunning orchestra responded in spades. The strings amazed with a richness of texture regular Sydney concertgoers rarely get to hear.

Limelight Magazine dubbed the AWO’s 2011 concert the best of the year by an orchestra. I have no qualms about doing the same for this 2013 tour – even though the Royal Concertgebouw is waiting in the wings for its late-November tour. In a word: matchless.

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