Our Orchestra Project: Fabian Russell

Our Orchestra Project: Fabian Russell

On Mahler, mentoring and being more than just a performer. 

Fabian Russell
Melbourne, Australia

Our Orchestra Project: Fabian Russell

On Mahler, mentoring and being more than just a performer. 

The Orchestra Project commenced 15 years ago in Melbourne! Can you tell me about how the idea came about, and why you initially started the program?

The goal of The Orchestra Project is really to be a celebration of the community of Melbourne musicians. That’s what started us, and that’s what has kept me going. Back in 2001 while I was a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as a player, I participated in this great side by side project with the Australian Youth Orchestra. The young members of the AYO were seated amongst professional musicians, and over the course of four concerts in the Sydney Myer Music Bowl, we put on some concerts by ourselves, as did the AYO, then we all came together to play Mahler 1. It was a really terrific project, that really sparked something in my imagination. I’d already been a practising professional musician for 15 years, but I’d never been involved in a project like that one. It really opened my eyes, and I started thinking about how we could do something like that on a more ongoing basis here in Melbourne. I started chatting to some fellow players and conductors, and basically, they said if you want to give it a shot, start a pilot program, we’ll get behind you. So with the help of three young administrators - Naomi Whileman, Tim Kennedy and Helena Balazs - we did just that: we gave it a shot. 

You were initially working off a “Symphony in a Day” type model - how does that work, and what does it teach young players?

We were, and we picked a pretty huge piece as our inaugural project: The Rite of Spring! In this model, you workshop the piece for several hours in the morning and into the early afternoon, then you perform it by the evening. As a player, you have to be prepared - it’s a big day. That first project was a real turning point for me, professionally. It was the first time I’d conducted a public orchestral project, and it really made me catch the bug. That first concert also brought people together in a way that hadn’t really been done before. Our musicians were from all over the place - Melbourne Youth Orchestras, ANAM, the Melbourne Conservatorium, Monash. It was an opportunity to meet and play with other people. After that initial performance, we decided to extend it, and our second piece of repertoire, Mahler 5, was prepared and presented in three days. That’s the model we’ve worked off ever since - you can get a surprising amount done in 3 days! It’s really special now, seeing how many of the top orchestral musicians around the country played in those early Orchestra Projects. After putting the idea on ice from 2008, it’s exciting to be starting up again with many of those musicians returning to lead the next generation of great orchestral musicians. 

Before you became a conductor, you were an orchestral player, so you know first hand how important it is to have great professional mentors. What’s your orchestral origin story? 

I was actually incredibly lucky to have had the start in orchestral playing that I did, and I still have to pinch myself. During high school, I was playing a lot in bands and orchestras, and absolutely loved it, but had no idea that it was a possible career path for me. I guess I thought I had to do the right thing and get a serious job, so I went into a business degree but kept playing around the place as much as I could. When I was 19, somehow I took the attention of someone at the Sydney Symphony when they didn’t have anyone available to play, and so out of complete desperation, they got me! I impressed them, and because there were, for some reason, no tuba players available, I got to stick around. It was an accident really! I had actually only been playing the tuba for a few years after being a high school euphonium player, so it was more good luck than anything that I got a contract out of that first try. 

What do you learn, being surrounded by world-class performers, that you can’t pick up from studying? 

So much! I don’t think ten years of study would have given me the same experience that playing in a professional orchestra gave me in three. It was incredibly good fortune, really. I learnt to play at a high level because I absolutely had to - everyone around me was a brilliant player, and I was surrounded by that every day. My colleagues certainly were more mentors than peers then. I wanted all their feedback to see how I could improve, so I would ask after performances and rehearsals, “how can I make this better?”. Before that job, I had no experience, and to be honest I’d hardly listened to orchestral music before that. It was a steep learning curve, but being right in the middle of it all was the ideal way to learn. When I started The Orchestra Project, I wanted to get as many fine orchestral players involved as possible, so young musicians could have that same experience as I did - hearing what was possible, and extracting as much wisdom as possible out of top players. This project now is about making opportunities for young players. The professional musicians give up their time to come and play and coach because they know how crucial that early mentorship is. We don’t ask students to pay any fees because it’s an expensive business to be a student, and we really believe in this method. 

So why Mahler 6? 

When you ask a young musician about what they want to play, they’ll give you the greats - Shostakovich, Mahler, Strauss. Generally speaking, big works are what get you excited, especially in your earliest days of orchestral playing. We’re also living in an internet world, where we’re entertained constantly, and the media has a huge influence in what all people find interesting. High drama is important, and when you’re young, you’re attracted to music that is not subtle. You want to play and listen to music that packs an emotional punch. Mahler 6? It runs the full gamut of emotions. It’s exciting to be sitting in the middle of an orchestra playing this work because it says so much. It’s an emotional feast - sometimes it’s dramatic and intense, sometimes it’s beautiful and intimate. Half the orchestra won’t have played this symphony before, and one or two may not have played Mahler before. The youngest in the orchestra is 18, the oldest is 68, so we’re bringing a whole lot of different life experience to the work. 

To be an orchestral player you have to have more than just great technique in your arsenal of skills. What do you think young people can be doing to help build their orchestral tools? 

I think good instincts are one of the most important things in an orchestra - you can’t get left behind, so you have to work pretty hard sometimes to keep up. You have to have a tough skin sometimes as well. It’s a tough gig to crack, and you’ve got to be okay with setbacks. You also have to be prepared. I don’t mean just by learning the music, but by being mentally, physically and emotionally prepared. It’s not the be all and end all to be an orchestral musician, by any means, but what doesn’t kill you can definitely make you stronger. Someone asked me recently about what it takes to be an orchestral musician, and I said: “you need to get up earlier in the morning!” You’ve got to be hungry for it. Keep chasing it, even if you make a mistake and feel like it’s not worth it. And discuss what you do and what your goals are with your colleagues and mentors! Unfortunately, we don’t have the financial infrastructure to hold in-person auditions for this program, so we choose people by consulting with the professional mentors. No one is not considered though, and if you’re keen to play in the next one, come and chat to me - it’s honestly as simple as that. We want people with drive and ambition and commitment just as much as we want technically good players. You don’t have to have years of experience - this can become your experience. 

Fabian Russell conducts The Orchestra Project in Mahler 6 on Sunday 16th April at 2:30pm at the South Melbourne Town Hall. Tickets are $20 for students. Grab them in advance here. Can't make it, but dig what The Orchestra Project is doing for young performers? Send them some love via their ACF page

Photo by Lucien Fischer for The Musician Project.