'Zubin Mehta is like a guru for the orchestra'

Ahead of his weekend performance, Alexander Briger of Australian World Orchestra is excited to bring Australia’s finest classical talent under maestro Zubin Mehta

A few minutes into the conversation with Alexander Briger, it’s easy to gauge why Zubin Mehta’s connect with the Australian World Orchestra (AWO) is special.

Alexander Briger
Alexander Briger

“In 2013, we (AWO) were keen to find a superstar conductor. Australian musician Nick Deutsch suggested to Zubin that he perform with AWO; he said he’d love to. This three-city tour took two years to plan,” shares Briger, who is in the city for this weekend’s grand performance at the NCPA.

Six visits to India, countless meetings with city organisers and producers (Mehli Mehta Foundation for Mumbai), and support from the Governments of India and Australia ensured everything was on track.

Mehta has a gift
Briger says the tour was the first chapter in the Australia-India Memorandum of Understanding on Arts and Culture, signed between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian counterpart Tony Abbott, during the former’s visit to Australia last year.

“It’s important and necessary that both nations engage with each other. This tour is the first step in that direction,” he maintains, adding quickly, “And it’s fantastic that we are doing this with the great Indian maestro. His every visit to India is special. He calls it his ‘spiritual home’.

Many Australian musicians who were associated with the Vienna, Berlin or Israel Philharmonic Orchestras are aware of his genius, and are thrilled because of Mehta’s connect with the AWO tour,” adds Briger, who conducted all the State Symphony Orchestras in Australia, including performances with the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.

Briger speaks about how the unit has enjoyed every minute with Mehta. “Suddenly, he was with us. Zubin is a spiritual man. He has a calming effect; and is a guru-like figure for the orchestra. He has a gift; a charisma that attracts world audiences — and the ability to involve and reach out to other human beings,” reveals Briger.

Western Classical to cricket
“We heard about the booking queues outside NCPA!” remarks Briger when we ask about the genre’s appeal in India. “I believe it’s very popular in Mumbai; Chennai is showing immense interest as well. Delhi is different, though. Zubin is the only person I can think of who represents this genre; he shares a standing like Sir Don (Bradman) in Australia. He is revered here, just like his father, Mehli Mehta. Concerts by the Symphony Orchestra of India are sold out. The Internet has played a key role in spreading its reach,” he believes.

The comparison with Sir Don Bradman makes us prod him about Mehta’s well-known love of cricket. “When he visited Australia, I organised an afternoon tea session with Brett Lee and Steve Waugh. Both cricketers gifted him their autobiographies; Lee, in fact, showed him a few tricks to bowl an outswinger!” divulges Briger, reminiscing further that Mehta had met the cricket legend in the 1970s.

Rapid fire
>> Indian musician(s) to collaborate with: Zakir Hussain. We were keen to do a show but it became complicated. We had to get a piece written for the composition, and have it orchestrated. Timelines didn’t permit it. All we could do is get young Indian music talent to perform with our orchestra.

>> Favourite cricketers: I’m old school, so I prefer Sunil Gavaskar, Sir Viv Richards, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. From the newer lot, it’s Michael Clarke and Steve Waugh.

>> Food memories: I love to cook and experiment. I’m planning to take back recipes for prawn curry and paneer.

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