[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]or his art, Alexander Briger AO – “AO” stands for the Officer of the Order of Australia honour – is willing to forgo one of the distinguishing elements of a conductor’s costume – the tail. For too long, classical music has been associated with stuffy formality and elitism, notes the founder of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO). Now, the globe-hopping Briger is on a mission to dial up its cool factor. “Some people are succeeding at it, with Facebook interactions etc, but it’s a constant struggle,” says the 47-year-old Sydneysider. “How do we get the younger generation involved?”
To refresh the image of classical music, AWO musicians will not wear tails this year, says Briger. He himself will be in a custom-made Givenchy suit and, to keep to form, he will not mind applause in between movements. “Back in Mozart’s days, that was the norm. Music was repeated if the audience liked it. To me [not being able to clap] is a shame because people are nervous about going to a performance.”
He will lead the AWO for a one-night-only concert on Oct 1 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, debuting an Australian work featuring eight double basses called The Witching Hour, along with Ravel’s Bolero (to showcase the soloists) and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.
VIDEO: A teaser for Briger’s October performance with AWO – back in 2011, when he still wore a distinguishing conductor’s tail.
You played the violin in your youth. Why did you decide to conduct?
When I was 12, I went to my first symphony concert. My uncle (the legendary Sir Charles Mackerras) was conducting it – Mahler’s 4th symphony. It was so beautiful that I knew I wanted to control music like him.
He also conducted an opera – Siegfried by Wagner – where the tenor had a nervous breakdown on stage. He gradually got worse, until at the end of the concert, he was throwing water all over the musicians and ripping up the score. He went completely mad and never sang after that. For a 12-year-old boy, it was “wow!”, I was really into it. Since then, it has become my favourite opera.
These are the events that have moulded me and led me to concentrate on music. Before that, I was playing with model airplanes.
Why is it hard for youths to appreciate classical music?
I am sure it has to do with technology. The younger generation has a much shorter attention span; they can’t sit down for an hour without becoming distracted. A big symphony is difficult to listen to because the harmonic language is so much more advanced. Within a classical piece of music, you can touch so many emotions, so quickly – incredible joy to total despair within a matter of minutes. The general R&B sound is repetitive, and it’s almost always in the same mood. It’s very easy to listen to. We have to instil knowledge in the younger generation, but education is hard because funding is taken away all the time.
Who do you think we’ll be listening to 100 years from now?
I don’t believe that anyone will be listening to Beyonce. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, maybe. But Beethoven will survive and Mozart and Bach. They were geniuses who could touch their generation, then generations after. Everyone will want to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Surely composers today are capable of producing classics, too?
Everyone wants to listen to a nice tune, but composers can’t do that anymore because it’s been done. Mozart has done that, Beethoven has done it. Just like with art, you move in new directions. Music goes through that. We’ve moved away from Serialism, which was complicated and difficult to listen to. Now some classical musicians are going back to composing in a way that we can listen to and appreciate.