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"Da capo al fondo!" says the conductor, flicking backwards through his score. He's been telling stories to the musicians sitting before him on the stage of the Opera House Concert Hall, drawing chuckles from the band as he describes how opera singers – tenors and sopranos are the worst offenders, apparently – take terrible liberties with the music of Verdi. But with those words – "From the top…" – the orchestra snaps to attention. The baton goes up in pin-drop silence, then the music begins. Verdi, of course.

The much celebrated Italian maestro, Riccardo Muti, chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is in Sydney to conduct the Australian World Orchestra in their annual concert series. It's only his second visit to Australia – he brought the opera company of La Scala to Sydney for the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000 – and his first conducting an all-Australian orchestra.

Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, visiting Australia to conduct the Australian World Orchestra, with violinist Natalie Chee.

Photo: James Brickwood

At 76, Muti still cuts a glamorous figure. His trademark black locks may be shot with grey, and his face a little craggy, but the charisma and the passion are all there. Sitting by the window in his dressing room at the Opera House, he says, "I have been fighting all my life with governments to convince people that music is not an entertainment. Today we need music and art and beauty, with a capital B, more than ever."

They're not just fine words. Every year Muti quietly devotes time to working with young musicians in war zones and trouble spots – Tehran, Damascus, Nairobi and Moscow to name just a few – around the world, in the name of international detente. He heads to Kiev later this year for a joint concert between his youth orchestra, the Luigi Cherubini Orchestra, and Ukrainian musicians. It's a tactic which, as he explains, can effect real change – the first Armenian aeroplane to land in Turkey in recent years was the one carrying his orchestra from Yerevan to Istanbul for a historic joint concert in 2001.

Riccardo Muti devotes some of his time to working with young musicians in war zones and trouble spots.

Photo: James Brickwood

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"We want to play together. That is friendship."

Sydney is no war zone but the Australian World Orchestra is powered by similar themes of music and friendship. As soon as Muti's colleague, Australian musician and principal trombonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michael Mulcahy, told his chief conductor about this band of top-notch Australians, getting together once a year, like the Wallabies of music, Muti was keen to be involved. It has taken several years to find the space in his schedule, but now that he is here, Muti is full of praise for the orchestra assembled for his visit.

"The spirit that moves them is extremely intense and full of enthusiasm because everyone wants to do the best. There is a sort of happiness among them."

Concertmaster Natalie Chee echoes his words. "The joy factor is so high. Everybody wants to be here. Everybody is highly motivated to make really great music, and that's something that you hardly get in any other orchestra in the world.

"Being in an orchestra is like any other day job really. You get 80-100 people together and you're going to have all sorts; people who love their job, people who hate their job … it's just life." But with the Australian World Orchestra it's different.

"For one week, everyone gets out of their daily life," says Chee. "They're here, focused on the music, focused on being together. That really makes a big difference. It's just pure enjoyment. The way it should be, really."

Muti agrees. "Si. Certo … music can make miracles."

The Australian World Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti, plays Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Verdi in Sydney on May 2 and 4, and in Melbourne on May 3.

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