Deborah Cheetham will be the new curator of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Series, held at the National Portrait Gallery. The award-winning Yorta Yorta soprano and composer – who was voted Australian Artist of the Year 2019 by Limelight‘s critics – will take over from the Australian Series’ inaugural curator Matthew Hindson.

“I cannot wait to welcome audience members back to this series,” Cheetham told Limelight. “Australian chamber music has a style all of its own and this series provides an intense and intimate experience for players and audience members alike. With four new commissions, we will uncover hidden gems from the ever-growing cannon of Australian art music, as well as revisiting works of historical significance.”

Deborah CheethamDeborah Cheetham. Photo © Wayne Quilliam

“The CSO’s Australian Series is such an important vehicle for the amplification of the Australian narrative,” Cheetham said. “The arts, music in particular, are the most powerful way by which we may know and understand our belonging. For that reason, it is vital that our stories are told and that our composers have the freedom, opportunity and support to refine their own musical expression of what it is to be an Australian living in the 21st century.”

The CSO’s incoming Artistic Advisor Jessica Cottis described Cheetham’s taking over the Australian Series as a “hugely exciting and meaningful” appointment. “Deborah Cheetham brings such humanity to everything she does,” Cottis said. “She’s an exceptional musician, a pioneering and inspiring leader, and one of the most brilliant and thoughtful arts programmers in Australia today. I feel extremely privileged to be working with Deborah on the CSO’s 2021 season – we’re all so looking forward to making music alongside her. Welcome Deborah!”

Cheetham hopes the Australian Series will become a catalyst for greater representation of Australian music more broadly in the country’s orchestras and ensembles. “Drawing on the strength of the longest continuing music practice in the world, I want to place Australian composers front and centre in the minds of Australian audiences, building a sense of anticipation ahead of each concert and in the lead up to each season,” she said. “I want to support a new generation of First Nations composers to exert their cultural authority and tell their stories through the powerful medium of chamber music. Finally, I want us to better know ourselves and our worth.”

The 2021 Series, which will feature four new commissions, will explore the idea of ‘return’. “The year 2020 has redefined the importance of basic freedoms,” Cheetham explains. “To gather together to make and receive a performance. Never facile, the idea of Return is complex at the best of times. We have been reminded of this truth time and time again throughout 2020 as we grappled with desire and dread all driven by the idea of Return.”

“First Nations voices will be celebrated while audiences will have the opportunity to experience once again the beauty and immediacy of chamber music, which reflects in a very personal way the Australia we know and the Australia we are yet to know,” she said.

Cheetham’s appointment builds on the success of the Series under the direction of Matthew Hindson, who has been curator since its establishment by CSO Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Nicholas Milton in 2017. “It has been such an honour to be at the beginning of what will surely be a long-term, important contribution to our musical culture,” Hindson told Limelight.

“It was seen as a bit risky,” Hindson said. “Which other orchestras were presenting a series of purely Australian music? Played by Australian performers? None were – so it was a new idea. But the CSO board, management and partners (especially the National Portrait Gallery) backed it all the way and audiences responded.”

Milton paid tribute to Hindson’s “absolutely remarkable” contribution as the inaugural curator of Australian Series. “His determined vision to feature Australian music amongst the CSO’s diverse concert offerings and promote opportunities and arrange commissions for Australian composers has been revolutionary,” said Milton, who concludes his tenure with the orchestra at the end of this year.  “The musicians of the CSO and the wonderfully engaged and curious audience that we serve across the Canberra region have discovered so much intriguing and stimulating repertoire through our association with Matthew.”

With increasing support, including from sponsor Singapore Airlines, the Series grew rapidly. “For the first concert in 2020 (Love, Kindness, Decency) we were able to include two world premieres and have an ensemble of 12 players – the resources required to do this are substantial,” Hindson said. “The concert was truly stunning. The new work by Cyrus Meurant received an instant, standing ovation at its conclusion, the likes of which I have not seen for some time.”

“It’s all about bringing the quality of Australian music to the forefront of our cultural thinking,” said Hindson, who notes that since 2017 the Australian Series has presented 74 pieces of Australian music, including 34 world premieres, engaging 65 musicians. “This includes the achievements of the CSO’s sister Australian Miniseries, which I’m co-curating this year with Jessica Cottis. Commissioning 15 new works for online premiere by CSO musicians during COVID-19, the Miniseries further reflects the orchestra’s significant, long-term commitment to Australian music.”

“But we’ve really only just begun,” he said. “There are so many more possibilities to explore.”

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