Conductor Alexander Briger AO and his sister, Australian World Orchestra's CEO Gabrielle Thompson AM.
Conductor Alexander Briger AO and his sister, Australian World Orchestra's CEO Gabrielle Thompson AM. Paul Ghica

Sounding out classical success

IT'S not often the people in the back room get publicly recognised, so for Australian World Orchestra chief executive Gabrielle Thompson, receiving an AM this month is very unexpected.  

Gabrielle is the co-founder of AWO, alongside her brother and international conductor Alexander Briger.   

For the past 10 years the 60-year-old has juggled family and work commitments to bring her brother's dream to fruition. 

"At first I thought it was just going to be a kind of sideline that I could help him with from my movie business," she said.   

"But then, of course, it completely overran everything."  

The former financier and film producer finally moved into the paid role of chief executive in 2013 as the not-for-profit organisation gained momentum and the challenges of organising the biennial and then annual concert series took off.  

"I don't think either of us realised how much it would be embraced by the community and how big a project it would be," Gabrielle said.   

She now has under her management more than 100 musicians, all at the top of their profession and representing more than 50 orchestras, performing together. It's no mean feat dealing with them.

There's the booking, transporting and accommodating all these players. Then there is the negotiating of the venue hire, marketing the event and succeeding in selling enough tickets to make the series viable.   

Alongside all of this are sponsorship deals to bed down and various government art community grants to chase.   

Gabrielle has displayed an exceptional talent for balancing her high-profile job with a vibrant family life. But really, it's in her blood.

She is part of an incredibly distinguished dynasty where high achievement was the norm.   

Her architect father, Andrew Briger, who emigrated from Russia to England where he ran a ballet school, became a council alderman and mayor. His father was a concert pianist. Mrs Thompson's mother, Elizabeth, was a ballerina. Her Mackerras uncles were also accomplished - Alistair was a Sydney Grammar School principal, Sir Charles a conductor, Professor Colin a world-renowned China expert and Malcolm a psephologist.  

"My great-great-grandfather, Isaac Nathan, was the first person to write an opera in Australia," she said.

It was called Don John of Austria.  

"I have been lucky enough not to feel too much pressure. Or maybe it's because you get used to it," Gabrielle said.

"What drives me with the AWO is the passion about the product itself and about the people I work with. Our musicians are just phenomenal."  

Retirement for Gabrielle is a discussion that swings from stopping at age 65 to: "I don't think that's a reality because I am absolutely passionate about doing this and I love doing it and I can't imagine myself not working."  

In 2021 the AWO will celebrate the 10th year since its first performance.  

"We have an enormous work we have just commissioned," Gabrielle said.   

"It's a big chorale symphony to be written and sung in first nation language. We are going to be performing that with a  regional children's choir, called the Moorambilla Voices."  

Gabrielle and her small AWO staff will be working with 50 children and 52 musicians to bring the 2021 concert series to the public.  

Before that she still has the 2019 concert series - AWO Six and Alexander Briger Conducts - to finalise and deliver in Melbourne on July 26, Canberra on July 27 and Sydney on July 30.