★★★★☆ Double basses take the spotlight to celebrate five years of AWO.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 28, 2016

There’s always a bit of magic in the air for an Australian World Orchestra concert. Something like a cross between a school reunion and the last day of term, the rapturous welcome for the ex-pat supergroup last night proved that none of the sheen so admired by Zubin Mehta and Simon Rattle has worn off. It has now been five years since Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Alexander Briger brought his baby into the world with a memorable Beethoven Nine, and to celebrate he was back on the podium for a mixed programme of staples and a brand new concerto from  Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin – for eight double basses no less!

Alexander Briger

Ravel’s Bolero might be considered a bit of a warhorse, but from the hushed opening on pizzicato strings, pianissimo side drum and sinuous flute onwards it is the ultimate showcase for each and every section of the orchestra. To be honest, with a Rolls Royce band like this, a conductor just needs to gently put his foot on the gas pedal and off it goes, which is pretty much what Briger did, and very nicely too. As the AWO purred along, nifty instrumental combinations followed apace. Finely finessed solos on trumpet (David Elton) and tenor and soprano saxophone (Nick Russoniello and Christina Leonard) gave special pleasure. Taking the reins for the final furlong, Briger whipped it up to a right old frenzy before slam-dunking the final chord to what can only be described as wild applause.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s commission (courtesy of AWO supporters Renata and Andrew Kaldor plus the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund) necessitated something of a role reversal as the eight mighty soloists shifted from the back row into the front, the size of their basses an impressive sight to behold as these musical titans dwarfed even the conductor. By happy coincidence, they were the exact eight musicians who had played in the inaugural AWO concert, after which Briger had initially discussed the piece with the composer.

Entitled The Witching Hour, the concerto explores episodes from the traditional Russian tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, a resourceful little girl who outwits a wicked witch thanks to some help from a magic doll. Spectral strings, harp and celeste introduce the first movement, Spectres in the Forest, preceding a melancholy theme played on the eight bases. All hell erupts, replete with wacky percussion (rattles and all manner of oddities), the eight soloists galumphing away over the top of it all. This is engaging, populist music that wouldn’t be out of place in a Spielberg movie. The Wooden Doll Awakes follows, with a lovely lyrical melody in the woodwind before a scurrying, almost cartoonish bass-led waltz takes centre stage. This topples into a lovely lyrical section where the eight soloists play different melodies, one over the other – a bit like a 21st-century viol consort – with added percussive effects tapped out on the bodies of their instruments.

Elegy follows, a solemn, hymn-like thematic lament with tolling tubular bells – a bit like Arvo Pärt, but with more of a sense of fun. Cheeky pizzicato, muted brass and percussion introduced us to the finale Vasilisa the Beautiful – or more likely the witch Baba Yaga (she of Mussorgsky or Liadov fame), who requires the eight bassists to jump through a plethora of technical hoops exploring every unusual effect of which the instrument is capable. It’s all great fun and full of energy, as Vasilisa tackles the various tasks set her by the gruesome enchantress.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony occupied the second half of the concert, Alexander Briger appearing business-like and refreshingly informal without tie. He conducted impressively á la Mo. Mehta (i.e. without any score), but more importantly this was a reading fully worthy of the esteemed international maestros who have lined up to helm the AWO in recent years. Sinuous bass clarinet and meaty lower strings led the way, Briger not afraid to be bold with tempi and dynamic effect. This was an impassioned reading with great weight in the fortes and enormous drive. One of the glories of the AWO is it’s super powered string section and they didn’t disappoint, delivering some blistering climaxes with terrifically punchy brass. There was a lovely sense of foreboding in the setup to the lyrical Andante cantabile, with a warm horn solo (Ben Jacks). Neatly sculpted woodwind were offset by occasionally overwhelming strings as Briger kept things moving along nicely, occasionally slipping into a thrilling overdrive.

The lilting Valse celebrated that rich string tone once again with a burnished quality to the autumnal wind contributions (this is Tchaikovsky the ballet composer, and Briger preserved an appropriate sense of the dance about it all as he swept things forward). The Finale achieved a fine balance between firm strings and strident brass (horns were especially magnificent here). The Allegro vivace was about as galvanised as it gets with lovely lyrical lines soaring over powering motor rhythms. So thrilling was the build-up to the grand maestoso theme that it drew a smattering of accidental applause. However, the big finish was well worth the waiting for, and earned a deserved ovation from the packed house. The barrage of streamers and the Star Wars encore said it all really, and both were entirely merited.

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