The Influence

Alexander Briger AO, an Australian and international star of classical music, discusses the influence of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on his career. By Kate Holden.

Alexander Briger

A handwritten score by Gustav Mahler.
Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images

Among his many accomplishments, Alexander Briger is the founder of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), which has recently performed Beethoven, Schumann and Paul Dean’s works to celebrate the orchestra’s 10th anniversary. Briger has conducted many major orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic, as well as all the Australian state orchestras. He’s worked with Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti, and premiered compositions by Arvö Part, Elena Kats-Chernin, John Adams and Bruno Mantovani. Briger is considered a specialist in opera and the work of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Janáček, and, notwithstanding Covid-19 disruption, enjoys a constant schedule of performance and touring.

He has nominated Mahler’s Symphony No.  4 in G Major for this column.

Very nice to meet you Alex. First, tell us about yourself.

I’m an orchestral conductor. I always wanted to become a conductor. So I left the country when I was 21. I went to Munich, lived there for a decade, then moved to London for a decade. I came back here ’til 2015 and set up the Australian World Orchestra, and now I live in Paris. But I have three children who live here, so I always try to get back every three months – back and forth like a windscreen wiper – to see the family and work with the AWO.

Can we talk about your choice for The Influence? How did you encounter Mahler?

My uncle was probably the most famous musician Australia ever produced, Sir Charles Mackerras. He was music director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As a boy growing up I wasn’t that interested in music; I wanted to become a pilot when I was 10. We have a big family house in Rose Bay, it’s been here for generations. We grew up here, my uncles lived downstairs. We always had Uncle Charles coming in and out but I didn’t take that much notice. When I was 12, my mother said, we’d like you to go to your first concert. I thought, sure, my uncle’s conducting it… So I went to this concert. I don’t remember what else was on the program, all I remember was that Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was on it. I had no idea about it. There’s this slow third movement, a long, long adagio. It’s heartbreaking music; for me it’s this Jewish man having a huge premonition of the Holocaust. It’s very odd, how intense and tragic this movement is.

I saw my uncle standing in front of the orchestra moulding this music. He wasn’t just playing, he was the one doing, and that’s what I immediately thought: I want to mould that piece of music.

I want to control that whole orchestra, and have the whole sound coming at me, and my arms are what’s making that music. I heard this third movement: right there and then I said, I want to conduct. That’s what I want to do with my life. And I want to conduct this piece of music, and I want to do what my uncle is doing. I have to, I have to conduct this piece of music.

And after that I just became obsessed with music. It was like a switch. In one moment, a light was switched on: bam. My whole world changed: no more aeroplanes. I’d played the violin – hopeless, never practised, “It’s boring.” … But from that moment I started to practise. All day long. I started to look at scores, and this piece of music. I bought a recording of it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by a very famous German conductor, Klaus Tennstedt, revered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; they’d recorded all the Mahler symphonies with him. I bought this and listened to it over and over and over again. My sister and I used to always listen to the Mahler Fourth Symphony, third movement. There’s one chord in it, right near the end, which we called “the killer chord” – “Here comes the killer chord!” and it was like, aaargh! It breaks your heart. So that’s how I led my way into conducting. I had my brain mapped out from the age of 12: this is what I’m going to do.

And of course every time my uncle would come back I would go to all his rehearsals…

He must have been thrilled! Was he happy to have a protégé?

No, no, it was a very complicated relationship with my uncle. He was like a second father to me, and he adored me, but it was very difficult having an uncle that famous. Even now I suffer greatly from it. All the reviews of me always mention Mackerras and compare us. In a way it was a curse. In any case, I became a conductor and my uncle took me very seriously, and then I became obsessed with another Mahler piece, the First Symphony, and when I was in Munich I formed a youth orchestra which was supported by my uncle, and the first thing I conducted with them was this Mahler First Symphony. That’s when my uncle saw me conduct for the first time, and he realised: this boy has talent.

I started conducting all over the world. And guess what? I got invited by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re one of the top-10 orchestras on Earth, a big, big deal. It was at Royal Festival Hall: I remember the day I got asked, just running around London going aaaaah! That went really well for me and they asked me to tour with them; I did lots of festivals. Then they came to me and said, ‘What would you like to conduct?’ And I said, ‘Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.’ So here I was, having grown up listening to this symphony that made me become a conductor, buying the record of it with this orchestra, and suddenly I find myself in London, conducting this symphony with this orchestra. I conducted it at Royal Festival Hall and who came to see me conduct it? My uncle.

Talking about influence: well for me, there’s no other symphony or orchestral work that’s influenced my life so much.

It’s a strange work: that third movement is sorrowful and full of reverie, in a piece that’s otherwise about childhood happiness.

And when my father died I remember going up to The Gap and listening to it. He died about 1 o’clock in the morning and I drove up there about 3 or 4 o’clock, just waiting for the sun to come up, listening to this symphony, crying. And you know what? I never want to hear it again. Unless I’m conducting it, I never want to hear it, ever again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Alexander Briger".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.