Concert review: Australian World Orchestra shines despite short lead-up

The Australian World Orchestra.
The Australian World Orchestra. PHOTO: PRUDENCE

Australian World Orchestra 2016 Singapore Tour

Esplanade Concert Hall/Saturday (Oct 1)

There is no shortage of Australians playing in the top orchestras around the world. But for them to meet over a short period to prepare substantial tour programmes for the Australian World Orchestra and to perform at the level they attained this evening was quite remarkable.

The concert opened with Ravel's Bolero, a work that shows off just about every instrument of the orchestra, including the lesser heard ones such as tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and the oboe d'amore. The allure of the work is not just in the composer's brilliant orchestration but the anticipation and tension that build up over 17 minutes of incessant crescendo.

The orchestra's founder and chief conductor Alexander Briger directed a scintillating performance of Bolero, beginning with solo flute playing over barely audible snare drum, viola and cello. A succession of wind solos followed, then choirs of wind and strings. Ultimately a second snare drum and percussion heralded a tumultuous climax.

For most of the piece Briger's direction was hardly visible to the audience, but his control and sense of direction were evident throughout, and the result was most creditable.

The double bass section of the orchestra boasted a star-studded line-up, including principals, former principals and members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna Chamber and Sydney Symphony Orchestras. This section was the set of soloists for Elena Kats-Chernin's concerto for eight double basses and orchestra - The Witching Hour - which saw its world premiere in this concert.

The four movements of the concerto were inspired by the traditional Russian tale Vasilisa the Beautiful, composed using tonal techniques and fully exploiting the range and colour available on the double bass, including percussive tapping on the body of the instrument.

The orchestration had more than a hint of Hollywood film score, the soloists often narrating the tale in pairs and foursomes, with the occasionally solo.

The virtuosity and musicality of the eight basses were beyond reproach. As a vehicle to show off the orchestra's awesome bass section, Kats-Chernin's concerto worked beautifully. Still, one wonders if it would be more apt to call the work a suite for orchestra with basso obligato.

Like Ravel's Bolero, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 is a natural for the orchestra to present on tour. Briger's conducting here was once again admirable, although he tended to allow volume to build too quickly. The orchestra had immense dynamic range and filled the Esplanade to a sound level not heard from an orchestra for many years. That said, more time spent in mid-dynamics and less stridency in strings and brass would have added warmth and tenderness to complement the excitement generated.

The second movement featured the most celebrated horn solo in the orchestral repertoire, and Ben Jacks played a superb solo - exquisitely measured and beautifully nuanced.

The horn section was equally special, underscoring the legacy of Australian Barry Tuckwell, for many years among the greatest horn players in the world.

Conventional wisdom has it that a top-flight orchestra needs months and years of work together to reach top standards.

Without doubt if the musicians of the Australian World Orchestra of 2016 were able to spend more time working together the results would be even more impressive. As it stood, this one-off orchestra was a testament to the fine Australian musicians who have made good at home and abroad.