Review: Australian World Orchestra directed by Riccardo Muti Melbourne

David Barmby

World-class orchestral performance under an acclaimed conductor.
Review: Australian World Orchestra directed by Riccardo Muti Melbourne

The Australian World Orchestra (AWO) conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Now in its seventh iteration, the annual gathering of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO) is always an event to look forward to and an opportunity to celebrate Australia’s cultural heritage and achievement, comprising on this occasion 86 of Australia’s leading classical musicians from abroad and within the country.  Last year the orchestra performed alongside young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) for a rare and memorable performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie under the direction of Simone Young.  By contrast, this year’s offering was of more traditional fare in Brahms’s Second Symphony in D major, Op 73 and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth in F minor, Op 36, both Romantic works written at around the same time, though worlds apart in both style and language.  The famous and distinguished conductor on this occasion was Riccardo Muti, born in Naples and now a citizen of the world, currently director of music of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and making his first appearance in Hamer Hall, Melbourne.


This was a world-class orchestral performance, but the outstanding achievement by the AWO and its guest conductor was that such a rapport could be established after they had played together for only a week.  The ensemble was superbly voiced, balanced and tuned across its entire dynamic range.  There was tremendous vigour and energy in each and every section.

This memorable occasion was as much a masterclass in conducting as it was in orchestral performance.  From his first steps on stage Muti appeared formal, focused and highly disciplined.  Only briefly acknowledging the audience’s enthusiastic cheering with a modest smile, it was straight into business.  The beat is on the very point of the baton. Gesture is limited to what is essential and only what might help the musicians. His elbows barely move from his side as the beat is all in the wrist. The left hand is used mostly for phasing and expressive shading.  In terms of feeling and narrative, there was a focused clarity and succinctness; one could sense that the conductor, having conveyed his interpretation of both works in rehearsal, was more or less allowing the orchestra to get on with it uninterrupted.  Muti never got in the way of the music they were making together.  Nothing is extraneous in his direction, indeed, in the Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro of the Tchaikovsky the conductor ceased beating time altogether and simply shaped phrases and voiced parts. There was obviously a firm surety of tactus throughout.

Highlights of this performance included the subtlety and hushed softness of the strings (led by Natalie Chee) in the opening Allegro non troppo of the Brahms Second Symphony with its generous and rewarding repeat of the exposition, and the gloriously rich tutti sound of the orchestra in its final Allegro con spirito.  The balletic grandeur of the Tchaikovsky was carried with élan, supported by a brass section from heaven, along with the moving vibrato of violins (led by Daniel Dodds) in the opening Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima followed by the delicate and nostalgic woodwinds of the Andantino in modo canzona.

I can only praise this exceptional performance; there was nothing to fault.  If the AWO were a permanent ensemble with this level of distinguished direction it would very soon become one of the world’s finest orchestras.

Rating: ★★★★★

Australian World Orchestra

Riccardo Muti, guest conductor

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne

Saturday 5 May, 2018 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.