How many orchestra members does it take to change a light bulb? If anyone knows the answer to that question, it should be the conductor Alexander Briger AO.
“The music – the artistic part — is easy. It’s organising the dates to play that’s difficult,” says Briger, 48, juggling the phone from his French home in Paris while he makes coffee and feeds his one week-old daughter.
This Sydney-born conductor can multi-task. He is the co-founder of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), who with his sister, film producer Gabrielle Thompson as its CEO, set up the all-stars orchestra often called the ‘Socceroos of classical music’.
The AWO’s signature is not just the mass of high-powered musicians performing; it’s the massive pieces of music they perform led by the global giants of conducting.
Half comprised of a diaspora of Australian A-list musicians who play full-time with the world’s leading orchestras, and the other half from the elite of Australian orchestras, its now annual Australian performances commenced in 2011.
The AWO’s signature is not just the mass of high-powered musicians performing; it’s the massive pieces of music they perform led by the global giants of conducting who have included Sir Simon Rattle, Simone Young AM, Maestro Zubin Mehta and Briger himself. This May, its annual performance series of three concerts will be conducted by the legendary Italian Maestro Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne.
The 2018 AWO line-up includes 89 Australian musicians from famed orchestras including the Berlin, Vienna and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras, the Chicago and London Symphony Orchestras and musicians from the Australian state orchestras and other Australian musical luminaries. In May, the AWO team will perform Brahms’ Symphony No.2 in D Major, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F Minor, and a “Verdi surprise”.
Briger was motivated to establish the AWO after conducting an all-stars orchestra, the Japanese Virtuoso Symphony, in 2007.
“When I started conducting and I was going to a lot of different cities, I’d meet up with all the Australian musicians playing in all these major orchestras. I thought, ‘how good would it be if we could get all of them together to play at home’.”
As the nephew of the great Australian conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras and a descendant of the composer Isaac Nathan, you could say Briger’s choice of career was pre-destined. A graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, his international conducting career took off in Europe in the late 1990s when he began getting jobs as an emergency replacement for conductors who were unable to perform.
“The Philharmonia Orchestra in London used to call me their ‘permanent guest replacement conductor’.”
Blessed with an ability to learn scores within 12 hours — even new works he has no prior knowledge of — Briger has often found himself phoned at Heathrow and asked to fly to another city to be on a podium to conduct that evening. He says emergency work is how many conductors get their break. Since he got his, he has conducted with many of the major orchestras across Europe and all the state orchestras at home.
Star conductors such as Rattle, Mehta and Muti are organised at least five years ahead.
He visits Australia for six or seven weeks at a time about half a dozen times a year to conduct and to work on the hard bit – the AWO schedule.
Organising schedules for in-demand musicians, soloists and singers is a huge challenge when they are booked at least two years in advance. Star conductors such as Rattle, Mehta and Muti are organised at least five years ahead.
“Someone like Pavarotti was organised ten years ahead,” says Briger. “For some reason though, the Russian orchestras and opera houses always leave it so late – only four of five months ahead.” Briger knows this first hand as he has conducted the opera Rasputin twice in the last 12 months for the Helikon Opera in Moscow.
Since the AWO was formed over 300 musicians have played with it. Briger calls them all “‘orchestra members” even though there’s only 80 to 109 positions available a year. There are usually more ex-pat and local players willing to accept the invitation to play than needed.
“It’s a chance for them to come home and see family and just as importantly for their families and Australian audiences to see them play at home,” Briger says, adding that for many of the players the AWO concerts are the first opportunity their Australian family and friends have heard them play at home.
Still many of them just fly in and out to do it within seven days in order to get back to their full-time jobs with their home orchestras.
“They fly in on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, begin rehearsals Sunday afternoon, and they fly back the following Sunday.”
This year the AWO includes the trombonist, Michael Mulcahy, who has strong connections with Muti as a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and violist Tobias Lea who was with Muti as Principal Viola at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Now Briger is working on booking a conductor for 2022 for the AWO when it will perform at the re-opened Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. “He’s one of the top five in the world,” he hints.
So how many orchestra members does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, if it’s Alex Briger.
Photo of Alexander Briger by Ned Mulvihill