Superstar orchestra to score with India

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Australian World Orchestra chooses to perform in India for its first-ever international tour. And Indian conductor Zubin Mehta is wielding the baton

The Australian World Orchestra (AWO) is flying to India for its inaugural international tour in October, under the baton of renowned Indian conductor, maestro Zubin Mehta.

AWO was founded in 2010 as a superstar orchestra consisting of Australia’s top musicians who left the country to play in leading orchestras around the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and London Symphony Orchestra. Headed by artistic director and chief conductor Alexander Briger, it fast made a name for itself as one of the most exciting new orchestras in the scene.

The Indian Sun met Briger and founding director Gabrielle Thompson, now CEO, in New Delhi to find out how India came to be chosen for the first ever international tour and why it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase Australia’s musical talent.

It was just before Mehta came to conduct the AWO, performing sell out shows in Sydney and Melbourne in 2013, that the idea to perform in India was kindled. Mehta is widely regarded as one of the world’s top conductors, and is music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic.

As Briger tells it, he was chatting to an Australian musician who plays in the Israel Philharmonic. “He actually said to me before Zubin came in 2013, ‘Oh you know, we should go to India, it’s great fun’,” Briger recalled. “I said ‘great, let’s see if he likes the orchestra first!’”

It soon became obvious Mehta was blown away by AWO’s talent. At the end of a long-standing ovation in Sydney, he hushed the excited audience, saying: “Do you realise what you’ve got here?” When the crowd called back “yes,” the maestro said: “Don’t let go of them!”

Briger said Mehta responded enthusiastically when he approached him about taking AWO to India, telling him, “great lets do it”. The legendary conductor had just one week free in a jam-packed schedule for 2015, so it was quickly pencilled in and Briger and Thompson set about the daunting task of arranging the logistics – with some 83 musicians from around the world needing visas, an invitation from the Government of India to be secured, venues found, stages constructed, sponsors brought on board, and an array of very expensive, very heavy instruments needing shipping, the challenges were many.

Briger admits there were moments were it seemed as if they’d taken on too much. “I was on the phone to him and… kept on saying ‘Do you really think this is possible? Do you really think we can bring it off?” he recalled.

Things became a little easier after the Australian Government chipped in with support, advising on the legal and bureaucratic hurdles, and pointing out that India’s new visa on arrival could save orchestra members living in countries without Indian embassies from making expensive journeys to find their nearest one.

But logistics aside, is there an audience for Western classical music in India? In some places there certainly is, according to Briger. “In Chennai [there’s] not a lot, and in Delhi, some, not a lot but in Mumbai yes,” he said “They’ve got a symphony orchestra there which is really good and they get a lot of super tar conductors out there and soloists and all of that business, and they’re people who really understand Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Mozart.”

“We’ve tried to tailor make the program so that it’s not obscure, so that people will recognise Beethoven, Mozart,” Briger said. “I think he always does some nice encores of Viennese waltzes, so the blue Danube and all of that sort of stuff, which apparently, I’m told in India they love.”

The tour will also show off a side of Australia that’s long been overshadowed at home, where the spotlight all too often falls on sporting greats.

“That’s one of other reasons we brought this orchestra together because we’re so sports obsessed,” Briger said. “Nobody realises in Australia that we’re probably better at playing classical music than we are even at playing cricket.

“We’ve got more superstars in the classical music scene out there [playing] in the best orchestras on earth, who have landed basically impossible jobs – just to get into these orchestras is impossible, because there are hundreds of thousands of people going for them. And then when they’re the actual principal, in other words they’re the best one in that position, and they happen to be from Canberra!” Briger said. “I think it will be nice then for Indians to see that, wow, they’re as good at playing this sort of music as they are at getting out on the cricket pitch.”

Both Briger and Thompson are also excited to see how the crowds in India respond to Mehta – perhaps India’s classical musical equivalent of SachinTendulkar. “I’ve never seen him [perform] in his home country, all I know is that everyone knows who he is and they’d do anything for him,” Briger said.

“We’ve had people calling already to our Australian office saying ‘How do I get tickets? – They haven’t gone on sale yet!”

AWO will perform two concerts in Mumbai on 25 and 26 October, and one concert in Chennai on 28 October, with a final show in Delhi on 30 October.

Before then, music aficionados can catch their next Australian Concert Series in Sydney on 29 and 31 July, and in Melbourne on 1 August.

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