The intimate Sydney Opera House chamber music series turns 10 with a host of intriguing projects.

The Utzon Music Series celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2017, bringing together local and international performers in a wide-ranging celebration of musical achievement. A successful platform for the presentation of more intimate musical performances, the Series has, since its inception, attracted serious world-class talent. The new year will carry on this tradition, with season highlights including soprano and early-music specialist Dame Emma Kirkby, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, pianist Behzod Abduraimov, and Australia’s own John Bell and Simon Tedeschi in a rare performance of Strauss’ setting of Enoch Arden.

“The wonderful thing about the UMS is that it stands up every year,” Series Curator Yarmila Alfonzetti told Limelight. “Every year has been interesting, important, and valuable. I never need to worry if the UMS is truly contributing to the arts and culture scene in Sydney – I know it is. What our tenth year says is that there is a place in Sydney for this type of concert; for a high quality, diverse, international, curated series of chamber music and recitals. Sydney has fallen in love with this type of performance – something special, something intimate, and something memorable. Of course there is a place for the big event, the big night out if you will, but UMS is a quieter, more cerebral affair where people who want something selective, and something to share, can find a home.”

John Bell

So what attracts artists to the Utzon Series? “Firstly, the repertoire is usually quite detailed and complex,” explains Alfonzetti. Each concert has a meticulously put-together repertoire, and all of this is easier to understand and take in when the room isn’t busy. Secondly, the artists are more likely to engage with the audience; the audience is closer, and we respond to what’s going on. You always feel like you know more; you learnt something; you looked into a secret room. UMS artists are genuinely interesting people; they have come from far and wide, and are at the top of their game. These are people you want to be close to.”

The 2017 Series opens with the Calder Quartet, an ensemble noted both for their enthusiastic championing of new music and their interpretations of the classical canon. They will be bringing this versatility to Sydney, juxtaposing the modernism of Anders Hillborg’s Kongsgaard Variations with the experimentation of Beethoven’s late Quartet, Op. 131.

Australian pianist Leslie Howard, a rare individual who can boast of having recorded the complete solo piano works of Liszt, will have the chance to demonstrate his storied history with his Utzon debut. He will present works both familiar and rare, spanning the career of his beloved composer. “As we say today, knowledge is cheap. Everyone has an iPhone, and Google is ubiquitous. What counts is experience, understanding and interpretation,” says Alfonzetti reflecting on the depth of experience Howard has to give. “Time and hard work has given Leslie this in spades. I want to spend my time with experts; I want to feel like the least-knowledgeable person in the room. That makes me hungry to know what people like Leslie know – people who have lived their whole lives with the music of one composer. I’m prepared to accept his version of how Liszt should sound because he’s an expert.”

Mahan Esfahani

Audiences should be similarly engaged by the return to Australia of harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani following his five-star debut at this year’s Brisbane Baroque. A thoughtful musician, Esfahani takes a wide-ranging approach to the repertoire he plays. His Utzon Room debut brings together the vibrant sound-scape of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and the classical elegance of Rameau. Bach is also on the programme with The Well-Tempered Clavier, along with Cowell’s Set of Four.

In another return, 26-year-old pianist Behzod Abduraimov (who made his debut in 2012), arrives with a programme that demands technical prowess and expressivity. He will be performing Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata and the more lyrical Schubert Moment Musical No 2.

The unique positioning of the Utzon Room audience is something Alfonzetti is passionate about. “Without a doubt, artists are breaking down the barrier between music and audience,” she maintains. “What can we learn about the subtleties of a piece when we can see the musician starting to sweat? What can we hear in the Utzon Room that we otherwise would miss in a larger venue? When should the piano lid be up, when should the singer stand somewhere else, when does something that sounds easy show as a struggle on the face. These are the nuances that allow us to learn something about musicality, communication, technique, and interpretation… all of the things that take music appreciation to the next level. You can’t get this in a big room, and you certainly can’t get this from a recording.”

Behzod Abduraimov. Photo by Nissor Abdourazakov

Another draw of the Series will be John Bell narrating Tennyson’s Enoch Arden in a rare performance of Strauss’ setting for piano and actor, joined by Simon Tedeschi. A favourite in Strauss’s lifetime, this Australian partnership looks to reawaken the piece’s dormant magic. “The absolute best ideas about repertoire always come from the musicians themselves,” says Alfozetti. “As a curator, I don’t always have to have the best ideas, but I need to know a great idea when I see or hear one. And personally, I avoid telling great artists what to do – it’s slightly preposterous. I know what will work, and I know what’s interesting, and I know what makes a great concert. But I want the musician to play something that inspires, interests and challenges them – only then will the performance be great. The idea of Enoch Arden came from John and Simon, and I just had to know that it was a great idea.”

For audience members who appreciate an eclectic set list, Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo has put together a programme that reflects her well-travelled person: Vivaldi joins Takemitsu, Ravel, Chausson, Schnittke, and Sarasate on a distinctly international list of composers. United by a sense of nostalgia and wonder, these composers will be an opportunity for Gomyo to demonstrate her innate lyricism and knack for storytelling. The Debussy String Quartet brings together three classic quartets for their Utzon debut. Performing one of their favourite works, Ravel’s String Quartet in F, the Quartet will also present Shostakovich’s melancholy Quartet No 7 and Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’.

British cellist Natalie Clein, having emerged as a rising star aged 16 when she became a BBC Young Musician of the Year, returns to Australia with a programme of cello gems. Bach’s Suite in G, selections from Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages, and Britten and Shostakovich’s sonatas are all exciting pieces for an accomplished musician. Pianist Alex Raineri will join Clein in the latter, both essential works of 20th-century chamber music.

Dame Emma Kirkby

Dame Emma Kirkby and her long-time collaborator, the lutenist Jakob Lindberg, will round out the season with their programme of Renaissance and Baroque works, featuring Dowland, Jones, Boessett and Ballard. The popular soprano has been a champion of early music since the early ‘70s. Alfonzetti dubs her a consummate artist who loves light and shade. “The interesting songs, the varied repertoire, the different ways of communicating through a vocal performance – that’s her speciality,” she says. “Her voice will have changed significantly since the last time anyone heard here, and that in itself is interesting. Her experience will inform how she sings, and that will be interesting. I think it is a gift for an audience to see how artists grow, change and develop. I, for one, am fascinated by the gentleness and detail of this programme, and the pairing with the lute is perfect”.