Australia is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and among various ways the country is showing itself off to the world is the first visit to America of its major orchestra, the Sydney Symphony.
The 56-year-old orchestra will launch a 12-city tour Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. The concert, featuring music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Australian composer Carl Vine, is sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society.
Leading the orchestra is Australian-born Stuart Challender, a man who overcame limited opportunities Down Under when he wanted to embark on a conducting career.
“I wanted to be a conductor ever since I saw my first conductor when I was about 11 or 12,” Challender, 40, said in a recent phone interview from Sydney. “I just thought a live orchestra was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard.
“There were no opportunities in Australia at the time at all to get professional conducting experience. There were a lot of opportunities to get experience in the amateur area. But that was totally unsuitable.”
So Challender went to Germany in 1968 and struggled for 12 years through what he described as “the opera-system wringer": playing piano in rehearsals and performances, coaching singers and “getting cups of coffee for the maestro” as he rose to the podium.
“I decided to go to Germany simply because I felt the traditional way of learning to be a conductor--going through the opera house--had produced the best people,” Challender said.
While in Germany, he encountered two formidable influences: Zen Buddhism and Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, at that time director of the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra.
“I got interested in Buddhism when I went to Nuremberg,” Challender said. “I met a man who had been a monk in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and was still living the life of a monk, albeit out in the world. Just talking to him and what he was saying seemed to make a lot of sense to me.
“After a lot of quite extensive reading, I found that Zen Buddhism appealed to me most. And it was the end of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, you know,” he added, with a laugh.
“There have been a lot of other influences in my life, but Zen has always fascinated me as one very powerful way of reaching the essence.”
Challender said Celibidache’s views on music were closely related to Zen.
“Celibidache taught me that there is a spiritual side (to music), that we all get very concerned with getting the notes right and all the technical things, and we get very concerned with the emotional content, but we tend to forget there is a very spiritual content,” he said. “It is so easily confused with the emotional content.”
Asked to distinguish between the two, Challender said: “It’s a hard question. . . . What it’s doing to your soul, as opposed to your gooseflesh.”
He added: “One criteria of a very great piece of music is what it does to the spirit. Great music is as close as we have ever got to perfection. Works of art are within themselves perfect: Their perfection is what somehow communicates to us that this is something that touches the spiritual plane.”
These ideas and lots of experience under his belt, Challender returned to Australia in 1980 to work with the Australian Opera. He had no intention of staying long, but he became increasingly involved in the burgeoning musical scene in his native country.
He said he “jumped in” when administrators of the Sydney Symphony decided that the organization “needed more tender care on a more permanent basis” than it had gotten over the past decade and offered him the position of music director, a first for a hometown boy.
“It was sort of hard at first,” he said. “I had never been a chief conductor (music director) of an orchestra and had to learn all the intricacies of (running) a symphony orchestra.”
Now the young conductor will put his energy into developing a distinct orchestral sound.
“We have developed an excellent basic orchestral sound,” he said. “We are beginning to develop a distinctive sound. . . . But it’s further down the track.”
Similarly, Challender feels that Australians generally are only beginning to achieve their own cultural identity.
“The bicentennial itself, as much as an excuse for a big party, has made Australians much more aware of their place in the world and in history, which is unique and needs to be understood and nurtured,” he said. “It has taken us a long time to come to terms with what that means.
“There were so many attempts to transform the landscape into England, all of which failed, earlier on. For instance, the early colonial painters even painted the landscape to make it look like England. But now I think we’re beginning to say: ‘This is us, we’re here; we’re going to stay here.’ ”
Stuart Challender will conduct the Sydney Symphony in music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Carl Vine at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. The concert is sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. Tickets: $10 to $30. For information: (714) 642-8232.