ON MAY 29, 1913, a riot broke out in the Paris Opera House, where a production of the Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), was on. The ballet and orchestral content was composed by Russia’s Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by the iconic Vaslav Nijinsky. According to a BBC report, eyewitnesses claimed that blows were exchanged, objects were thrown at the stage, and at least one person was challenged to a duel. To this day, historians are unsure whether it was the sheer primal dissonance of the music, and the colourfully subversive choreography of the music, that triggered the violent reaction from a shocked audience.
In November 2017, when Alexander Briger, chief conductor of Australian World Orchestra (AWO), arrived at St Petersburg airport, he was mobbed. He was there to perform Rasputin, by American composer Jay Reise. The ballet was on the life of the notorious Grigori Rasputin, a ‘mystic’ who wielded considerable influence on the last czar. Briger has an extraordinary connect with Rasputin; he is closely related to Prince Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s murderer. “It was an amazing experience,” says Briger. “They treated me like a celebrity. There was a massive press conference, and celebrity TV channels proclaimed that Yusupov had returned. When I finally started conducting, the audience went wild. It was almost a rockstar reception.”
Briger, with his 52-member orchestra comprising musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra, and Vienna and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras, will embark on his second tour of India in September, as part of the ‘Australia Fest’ that highlights Australian culture and creativity across India. They will perform on September 23, 25 and 28 at Chennai, Kochi and Mumbai.
And, it is an eclectic set of symphonies, from Beethoven to Mozart and Bizet, that they will perform, says Briger. Starting off with Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, a dramatic overture that becomes very light, fast and exciting, the spotlight will shift to violinist Daniel Dodds’s solo performance from Camille Saint-Saens’s virtuosic Rondo Capriccioso, on a rare 1717 Stradivarius. Then, French mezzo-soprano Caroline Meng will perform excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. The second half will keep the pace going with the whirlwind Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (watch out for that final movement). Excerpts from an interview with Briger:
Last time you visited, what was the response from the Indian audience?
We, in Australia, are very familiar with Indian classical music. I am not so sure if the same can be said about Western classical music in some of the places we performed at, in India. In our previous visit, I felt there was a lack of knowledge. But, that is good. That is why we are excited to come here. Imagine the honour that it is for us. To be the first to perform here, to gauge the reactions.
Indian and Western classical music differ a lot in style and performance. Still, you have pieces like [Antonio] Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which, for me, represents on a physical level what the ragas convey on a spiritual plane. Can the two styles be reconciled?
Absolutely. A lot of Western classical composers have tried to embrace the Indian classical style. Saint-Saens and [Claude] Debussy feature among the more prominent names. Then, of course, there are musicians like Menuhin, who took the tradition to heart.
In India, [Italian] Ludovico Einaudi is one of the more popular composers, mainly because of his pieces like Una Mattina, which have been used as film scores. Here, youngsters might be intimidated by a name like Beethoven Symphony 9, Movement 4, but will surely recognise the melody. How do you get around this?
This is something we have discussed at great length, and it is something that our programme has been tailored to do. Take the case of [Bizet’s] Carmen. We have no doubt that excerpts like Habanera are very recognisable for the people here. Same is the case with [Mozart’s] Don Giovanni opera. I am sure they will recognise it from popular movies like Amadeus. Even if they don’t, we hope our set is exciting enough for the audience to be really involved in it.
In your opinion, what is the outlook for classical music when it comes to general popularity? Even traditional bastions are being eroded; this year’s Pulitzer Prize went to rapper Kendrick Lamar and not to Ted Hearne or Michael Gilbertson.
No doubt, there is a growing ridge between Western classical music and Western pop music. Seventy years ago, it was a lot closer, as jazz was very much related to classical music. But with its evolution from Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and finally into what you call hip hop and such, the gap is wider than before. Western classical music went in a different direction. It is a problem for the youngsters. Which direction will you choose? The more popular music genre, or something that is much more complex, with bizarre harmonies, atonal, like Western classical music? It is easier to go the direction of the former.