Young performers star in The Orchestra Project

Fabian Russell talks training for emerging musos



Hundreds of emerging musicians have taken part in The Orchestra Project since it was founded. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, dear reader, are one of them.

In 2002, conductor Fabian Russell invited young musicians to be involved in this training platform, which would see them workshop and perform a concert using the same structure you’d find in a professional orchestra. Having started with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra himself when he was just 19, it may come as no surprise that Fabian has plenty to offer emerging performers who wish to enter this world.

This month The Orchestra Project will return to the scene with a performance of Mahler 6 in Melbourne, and we chat with Fabian to learn what this initiative is all about, and why his work with young artists is important.


What was your vision in commencing The Orchestra Project?

My vision for The Orchestra Project was simple: invite pre-eminent young musicians from Melbourne interstate to play alongside high level professional musicians, who perform the role of mentors in rehearsing and performing major orchestral works. This happens in a similar time period that would be undertaken by a professional orchestra – two days of rehearsals followed by a general rehearsal and then a public concert. Typically, youth orchestras have a very large number of rehearsals leading up to a concert. I believed that by replicating the professional rehearsal schedule for students playing alongside members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, this type of opportunity would give them a taste of what it is expected of a professional orchestral musician.

In 2001, I had been a member of the MSO for the best part of a decade, and it was around this time that I began to develop a strong interest in orchestral training programs as a conductor. In February of that year, the MSO hosted a side-by-side project with the Australian Youth Orchestra. This event was a great success that not only gave the young musicians of AYO an experience of playing with our best professionals, but I recall that it was also a really enjoyable experience for the seasoned pros of the MSO. It got me thinking about how we at the MSO could become more actively involved in orchestral training. So I approached our Chief Conductor Markus Stenz and the MSO management with a rather ambitious plan to pilot an orchestral training project under the auspices of the MSO.

In 2002, The Orchestra Project’s inaugural event was held where we workshopped and performed The Rite of Spring in a day! This was also my maiden appearance as an orchestral conductor and probably the turning point in my career from orchestral musician to orchestral conductor. Later that year, I invited Markus Stenz to conduct Mahler 5 – he loved it so much that he returned to conduct Mahler 6 and 9 in the following year.

What do you enjoy most about working with young orchestral musicians?

The obvious answer to this question is their energy and enthusiasm. I have enjoyed a long association with the Australian Youth Orchestra chiefly in the role of Associate Conductor where I prepare the orchestra for most of their guest conductors. I think this year’s February season was my 26th appearance with them. Every time I have entered the rehearsal space for the first rehearsal of an AYO season the excitement amongst the musicians is palpable. Last year was the European Tour and at our first rehearsal we were playing Mahler 1. The enthusiasm was so immense that one of my biggest challenges was to calm them down a little because they were ready to blow the roof off. There was so much zeal and determination, but very quickly they began to play with extraordinary refinement and over the course of the next few days they were thoroughly across all repertoire.

Similarly with TOP, the energy levels at the outset of the rehearsal period is truly inspiring. My professional colleagues who have played in TOP would often remark that they enjoy playing with these young musicians because they are reminded about why they wanted to become a musician themselves. Some of the conductors who I’ve invited to conduct TOP would tell me how much they loved entering the rehearsal room to be greeted by so many happy, smiling faces!

For the most part, [young musicians] are flexible, they display a willingness to take risks, have a thirst for acquiring new knowledge, want to be a part of this very large team, and have real ambition to achieve shared artistic excellence. As a conductor, it’s wonderful to be involved in such an environment.

How has The Orchestra Project evolved over the years?

After our initial Stravinsky and Mahler projects, the Australian National Academy of Music, under the leadership of John Harding and later Brett Dean, became very supportive of what I was doing and became more or less our unofficial creative partners. From 2002 until 2008, we held about 12 major projects working with about six conductors. Unfortunately after I left the MSO and became busier with my own conducting career, I simply didn’t have the time that was necessary to continue to build it. It was also at this time that I became the Principal Conductor of the Melbourne Youth Orchestra and later on the Monash Academy Orchestra and the University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I took the decision late last year to recommence TOP […] for our Mahler 6 concert on 16 April.

How do you view the project’s role within the broader context of training and professional development opportunities for young musicians?

For me, the standout training bodies for young musicians in Australia, in no particular order, are the state youth orchestras, the Australian Youth Orchestra, ANAM, Australian Chamber Orchestra 2, and the Sydney Symphony Fellowship program. The Orchestra Project gives a different experience to all these fine organisations. Our projects are brief, they offer a professional replication and we all participate for the love of it. There are no fees for the students, and the professionals involved including myself receive no financial benefit. There is a tremendous feeling of community about our projects. It’s about bringing the Melbourne community of musicians together – a community that I’ve been a part of for 27 years. This week’s TOP season will comprise 116 musicians from every Melbourne organisation that I have worked for – MSO, Orchestra Victoria, ANAM, the Melbourne Youth Orchestra, University of Melbourne and Monash University. It should also be noted that most of our musicians this week are AYO alumni.

You’ve taken on many roles in your career: principal orchestral player, conductor, youth mentor. Is variety an important factor in a successful contemporary career?

Frankly, most of it hasn’t been planned. Its just worked out that way. I see an opportunity that piques my curiosity and I pursue it – sometimes with success and sometimes failure. It hasn’t always worked out, but it’s been a very rewarding journey so far. I was extremely fortunate to have been given an incredible opportunity with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as a contract musician when I was 19 years old. As a principal who had very little orchestral experience, they took a huge risk with me and over the next three years taught me so much about playing in an orchestra. I am forever grateful for that opportunity.

What do you see as the big issue facing young people in the music industry today?

Ever-increasing demand versus ever-decreasing supply of employment opportunities.

How do we address this?

How much time do you have?

What do you think it takes to be a successful orchestral musician in the contemporary setting?

There is not enough time in this interview to adequately respond to this question. However, the short answer is: if a young musician wants to be successful, I would recommend that they get up earlier in the morning, set the bar high and make plans (short, medium and long term). One of my dear colleagues used to say: ‘Strive to be the best player of one’s instrument and the best colleague to one’s peers, because if you fail at the former you may be able to fall back on the latter’.

Before we sign off, tell us about your favourite TOP story.

In 2008, my small team of TOP managers pulled together an orchestra of 110 musicians in about a week to put on a concert in support of ANAM when the Federal Government had taken the highly suspect decision to shut the place down. The outrage of the music community motivated a level of solidarity previously unseen. In support of ANAM, we brought musicians from every professional Australian orchestra to Melbourne to play alongside ANAM students and alumni in a concert performing Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Ein Heldenleben. As the doors were about to be closed on ANAM, we were unable to decide on the program order. The night before the concert, ANAM had received its reprieve and our program order was confirmed. When we concluded Heldenleben, I brought Brett Dean out to address the audience. To rapturous applause Brett announced the news that ANAM would live to fight another day. It was quite a night that went into the early hours of the next morning. And the rest is history!

You can support The Orchestra Project by heading along to its next concert featuring Mahler 6 at South Melbourne Town Hall at 2.30pm, April 16. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to The Orchestra Project here.

Image supplied (features Fabian conducting The Musician Project). Credit: Lucien Fischer.

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