A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Australian twang


A follow up to an interview with Riccardo Muti (for Sydney Morning Herald, published here).

The marvellous Muti was in town to conduct the Australian World Orchestra, the dream team of Australian musicians assembled from orchestras around the world by the enterprising Alex Briger.

We talked about music and peace and Verdi and singers and all those good things, and we also talked about whether selecting a bunch of Australian musicians and putting them all on a stage together resulted in a certain sound. An Australian sound, if you like. And if so, what it sounded like…

Over to Maestro Muti.

The sound has become for decades an idee fixe. The French sound, the German sound, now the Australian sound…

The sound is produced by the musicians that sit there. But it should be created, put together, by a conductor who must have a concept of sound. Take Karajan and Bernstein. They have two completely different sounds with the same orchestra.

It’s not that they lose their sound, but they adapt their sound to the needs of the interpretation, to the concept of the conductor. The sound is the combination of the possibilities of sound of the personality of the orchestra that every time is changed by the conductor (if the conductor has the concept of sound, for there are many conductors who just beat the time and what comes out comes out.)

Sound is something that should be cultivated. It’s not something that comes out naturally.

Going back to the Australian sound, musicians that are born in Australia but belong to different orchestras in Europe, in America, in Germany, in Vienna. They play in orchestras that have a different culture, a different history and so they have to accommodate, to fit in this environment. So they are Australians by passport but the soul, every Australian comes from a different part of the world.

I’m in heated agreement with Muti on this one. Indeed, I find the whole idea of an ‘Australian sound’ at best frustrating, and at worst troubling. The fact is that classical music is an international field: most musicians who reach the level required to play in top orchestras have travelled far and wide through their lengthy apprenticeship. And even if they have studied mostly in Australia, their teachers bring with them their own tradition. Not to mention that the huge majority of Australians who have had the opportunity to study music to a high level are immigrants, whether they came from Vietnam a decade ago, or Germany fifty years ago, or England two centuries ago. Unless you’re playing the didgeridoo, your instrumental tradition is unlikely to be Australian. Plus, the huge majority of orchestral repertoire, the stuff that gets played over and over, sits firmly within the Western, aka European, classical canon. Brahms with an Australian twang? Honestly, I’m not hearing it.

There is, however, something about the sound of the AWO. I’m not sure I could identify their sound just by a recording, in the way that you can the Vienna Phil. After all, the AWO is not one, consistent band: it is a new orchestra every year. But what I’m hearing is not a matter of style, of tradition, not a national accent. No. It’s more the sound of an attitude.

The AWO enjoys an unique situation, in that everyone who plays in it a/ wants to be there and b/ is, essentially, on holiday. OK, it’s a busman’s holiday but, as leader Natalie Chee points out, it’s a gig which takes them out of their daily routine, which gives them an enormous advantage over regular ensembles.

Everybody wants to be here. Everybody is highly motivated to make really great music, and that’s something that you hardly get in any other orchestra in the world, that level of motivation. And it only comes together once a year, so it’s just one chance to really give everything, to make music with other Australians.

For one week, everyone gets out of their daily life and most of us are away from our families. So most people with kids aren’t at home, cooking for their kids, taking them to swimming classes… They’re here in a hotel, focussed on the music, focus on being together. That really makes a big difference. It’s just pure enjoyment. The way it should be really!

I’m not suggesting that the AWO are anything less than superb. After all, they are the Wallabies, the Lions, the All Blacks of classical music, handpicked from some of the finest orchestras in the world. Of course they sound good. But that special edge, that intoxicating excitement that makes audiences leap to their feet, screaming and cheering… Let’s not flatter ourselves that this is the sound of Australia.

It’s the sound of joy.



  1. Heh, this is wonderful. I love his observation that some conductors simply keep time 🤣

  2. I played a crotales along with David Bedford and several other students in Dartingtton ’62 (studying with Nono, Berio, Lutoslavsky) – let me know if you have questions 🙂

    • Ah, Serge Tcherepnin, how great to hear from you! I wasn’t there in ’62, but I do remember your family and, especially, your mother’s kindness and enthusiasm in the 70s and 80s. Exciting things are happening with the archive right now, via a research project at the Royal College of Music. I will keep in touch, if I may. Best wishes, Harriet (Wilson) Cunningham.

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