Composer Elena Kats-Chernin has been made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in this year’s Australia Day Honours. It was bestowed on her for “distinguished service to the performing arts, particularly to music, as an orchestral, operatic and chamber music composer.” One of the country’s most distinguished composers and cherished musical figures, Kats-Chernin’s varied and prolific output sees her regularly programmed, recorded and commissioned both in Australia and abroad.

Elena Kats-Chernin. Photo © Bruria Hammer

Born in 1957 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Kats-Chernin wrote her first composition at the age of six. She trained at the prestigious and famously demanding Gnessin Musical College before migrating to Australia in 1975.

“It wasn’t easy, but I loved it,” Kats-Chernin told Limelight in 2017. “I think they chose 16 out of 600 for my course. Every single person in my course had perfect pitch. The emphasis was on music theory…You learned to study hard because to be in that school was a privilege. Having fun meant you would take a chorale and start singing four-part harmony. That was our fun time.”

In Australia, Kats-Chernin continued her musical education at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, studying the piano with Gordon Watson before learning composition under Richard Toop. She moved to Hanover in 1980 to further her compositional study with Helmut Lachenmann, a period which kickstarted her professional career. She received her first commission in 1982 from the Seymour Group, resulting in a sextet titled In Tension, and not long after began composing for the theatre and dance. After 13 years in Germany, Kats-Chernin returned to Sydney, where her works began to be performed by the likes of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Dancers of The Australian Ballet in Wild Swans, 2003. Photo © Régis Lansac

In 2000, her music was broadcast to millions around the world thanks to her collaboration with Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard on Deep Sea Dreaming, a dance piece evoking life on the Great Barrier Reef that helped open the Sydney Olympic Games. Her music for the ballet Wild Swans, another Tankard piece, was premiered in 2003 by The Australian Ballet, later winning the 2003 Green Room and 2004 Helpmann Awards for Best Original Score. A subsequent suite created from the score was recorded by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra alongside her Second Piano Concerto and an orchestral work titled Mythic.

Kats-Chernin’s many achievements include her appointment as composer in residence with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The orchestra gave the world premiere of her first symphony, Symphonia Eluvium, a commemoration of the devastating Queensland floods of 2011. The piece was subsequently voted Best New Composition by readers in the 2012 Limelight Awards. In 2014, Kats-Chernin’s music for Ensemble Theatre’s Frankenstein saw her named a joint winner of the 2013 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Score. The following year Kats-Chernin was a joint winner of the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, and in 2016 her TV opera The Divorce was nominated for the 2016 AACTA Award for Best Original Music Score in Television. She was appointed composer in residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2017, marking her 60th birthday that same year with a typically warm, open-hearted celebration at City Recital Hall. Kats-Chernin’s Third Piano Concerto was given its world premiere in November, performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska, one of the composer’s regular collaborators. She is currently composing a new opera about Australian artist Brett Whiteley, called Whiteley, to be premiered by Opera Australia in July.

Michael Ullmer, Chairman of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, has also been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, “for distinguished service to the performing and visual arts through a range of roles, and to the finance and banking industry.” He joined the orchestra’s board in 2006 and was named Chairman in 2015. Through his Family Foundation, Ullmer has established a multi-year pledge to deliver MSO’s education programs to children across Victoria.

Mary Jo Capps. Photo © Keith Saunders

Other arts individuals to have been honoured include Mary Jo Capps, who has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). She is recognised “for significant service to performing arts administration, particularly to music, and to business.” Capps recently stepped down as CEO of Musica Viva after 19 years in the role, previously serving as Deputy Managing Director and Director of Development at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 1999. Capps was Board Director of the Australian Music Centre from 1999 to 2004 and has occupied a number of committee and advisory roles over her distinguished career.

Choral conductor and composer Lyn Williams has also been made a Member of the Order of Australia, “for significant service to the Indigenous community, and to youth, through choral music initiatives.” Williams is the Artistic Director of Sydney Children’s Choir, which she founded in 1989, and of Gondwana Choirs, which she founded in 1997. Her achievements include receiving the Centenary Medal in 2001, an Order of Australia Medal in 2004, and the Australia Council’s Don Banks Music Award in 2017 for her work as founder and director of Gondwana Choirs.

Other musical figures made Members of the Order of Australia include co-founder of Black Arm Band, performer and educator Dr Cindy Bennett, who has been recognised “for significant service to the performing arts, particularly to music, and to the Indigenous community”. Dr Jeanell Carrigan, Associate Professor at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, pianist and recording artist, has been made a Member “for significant service to music education, particularly piano, and to the performing arts”. Professor John Griffiths, former Professor of Music at Monash University and specialist in the early guitar as both scholar and performer, has been made a Member “for significant service to music education as an academic and musicologist, and to professional societies.” Dr Goetz Richter, Associate Professor at the Sydney Conservatorium as well as solo violinist, has been a made Member “for significant service to music as a concert violinist, artistic director, mentor and educator.”

Other arts individuals to be been named Members of the Order of Australia include Timothy Coldwell, senior circus artist and founding member of Circus Oz “for significant service to the circus arts as a performer, designer, director and administrator”; John Derum, “for significant service to the performing arts as an actor, director and administrator, and to the community”; Sue Giles, Artistic Director and co-CEO of Polyglot Theatre “for significant service to the performing arts as an artistic director, and to theatre for children”; former NIDA Director Lynne Williams, “for significant service to the performing arts as an administrator and artistic director”; and Catriona Mordant, “for significant service to the arts through a range of administrative and advisory roles.” Singer Kylie Minogue and comedian and actor Magda Szubanski have also been named Members of the Order of Australia.

Cyrus Meher-Homji with Zubin Mehta in 2008, celebrating one million album sales in Australia for Mehta. Photo supplied

Cyrus Meher-Homji, General Manager of Classics and Jazz at Universal Music Group, has received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for “service to the performing arts, particularly through music.” He was appointed to the role of GM in 2011 and has overseen Universal’s recent expansion into presenting live concerts, and has worked closely with artists like Cecilia Bartoli, André Rieu, Dame Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge, Zubin Mehta and Renée Fleming. His achievements include the creation and co-publishing of music magazine Soundscapes from 1993 to 1998, the co-founding of the Eloquence label in 1999, and the co-authoring of a book about Eileen Joyce in 2016 titled Destiny: The Extraordinary Career of Pianist Eileen Joyce. Meher-Homji has also contributed to Limelight in the past.

Producer Jon Nicholls has also received a Medal “for service to the performing arts.” He served as Executive Producer of the Helpmann Awards from 2006 to 2012 and again in 2014 to 2017. He was an Executive Council Member of Live Performance Australia from 1992 to 2009, and has been involved in theatre from the earliest stages of his career.

Receiving the highest honour in the Australia Day awards, arts leader and philanthropist Carrillo Gantner has been made a Companion (AC) of the Order of Australia “for eminent service to the community through professional involvement in, and philanthropic support for, the performing and visual arts, and to Australia-Asia cultural exchange.” Singer-songwriter Olivia Newton-John has also been made a Companion.


A full list of recipients can be found here