With the year drawing to a close, we look back over the classical music concerts that wowed our critics in 2019. With so much on offer, it was tough reducing our lists, but this is what we picked.

JO LITSON – EDITOR

2019 Season Opening Gala (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Diana Doherty

The energising concert began with the famous sunrise in Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and ended in jubilant fashion with Percy Grainger’s The Warriors, music written for an imaginary ballet. In between, Diana Doherty reprised her breathtaking performance of Nigel Westlake’s oboe concerto, Spirit of the Wild, specially commissioned for her by the SSO, and inspired by the rugged wilds of Tasmania. The orchestra later recorded the work with Steve Reich’s The Desert Music. Performing the piece from memory, the phenomenal Doherty gave a thrillingly agile, detailed, vital performance, radiating “rockstar panache” as Angus McPherson put it in his Limelight review. A great start to the year.

Luminous (Australian Chamber Orchestra)

Bill Henson, Untitled 2003, courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries and Roslyn Oxley Gallery

Leaving the ACO’s concert Luminous, I felt I was emerging from a beautiful, dark dream. The collaboration with photographer Bill Henson – whose haunting imagery appeared on a large screen behind the orchestra – premiered in 2005. Performed in half-light, this third showing involved Israeli-Australian singer-songwriter Lior whose exquisite renditions of R.E.M.’s I’ve Been High, Britten’s setting of the Corpus Christi Carol and Purcell’s Frost Aria from King Arthur were ravishing highlights, along with Pēteris Vasks’ pensive violin concerto Distant Light, during which the screen was dark for a while. Some felt the images distracted from the music, I just went with the flow and found it mysterious, beautiful and very moving.

The Nature of Why (The British Paraorchestra, Perth Festival)

The Nature of Why at Perth Festival. Photograph © Toni Wilkinson

There were numerous, exciting classical concerts around the country, but The Nature of Why was unlike anything else I saw this year. Eight musicians from The British Paraorchestra, founded by conductor Charles Hazlewood for musicians with a disability, performed with 10 string players from the Perth Symphony Orchestra, two sopranos and four dancers. The audience moved around and between them on stage as they played. Free-wheeling in exuberant fashion, with a commissioned work by Will Gregory at its heart, the concert ended with a burst of communal dancing: a joyous but serious call for greater diversity in the classical music world.

ANGUS MCPHERSON – DEPUTY EDITOR

American Harmonies (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

SSO American HarmoniesTodd Gibson-Cornish, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in American Harmonies. Photo © Jay Patel

American Harmonies saw US Conductor David Robertson bring his six year tenure as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to a close with repertoire from his home country. Opening with a sunny account of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite and closing with John Adams’ mighty Harmonielehre, at the centre of the program was an Australian premiere: Christopher Rouse dedicated his new Bassoon Concerto to Robertson, and this colourful performance – with the SSO’s Todd Cornish-Gibson giving a brilliant account of the solo – was rendered all the more poignant in light of the composer’s death this year.

American Masters (Omega Ensemble)

Nico MuhlyBrett Brown, Gordon Hamilton and the Omega Ensemble in American Masters. Photo: supplied

From a spell-binding performance of two of Philip Glass’s Études for Piano by Sally Whitwell to the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Unexpected News, the Omega Ensemble’s American Masters was a crash course in American minimalism – and post minimalism – with Glass’ Sonata for Violin and Piano presented alongside John Adams’ Shaker Loops, and several older works by Muhly (Sydney enjoyed a bit of an unofficial Muhly festival in 2019). While the concert’s first half provided clever context for Muhly’s work, it was the new piece that was most moving, having been commissioned (like Gerard Brophy’s setting of Whitman’s We Two Boys Together Clinging) by Mark Wakely, in celebration of the life of his late partner, arts patron Steven Alward.

Bach in the Central Desert (Canberra International Music Festival)

Bach in the Central Desert, Canberra International Music FestivalVéronique Serret and William Barton at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Bach in the Central Desert – which saw the Ntaria Choir from Hermannsburg in Central Australia join didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton, violinist Véronique Serret, the sonic.art saxophone quartet and others – was not just a highlight of the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival, it was a highlight of the whole year. With two world premieres (William Barton and Véronique Serret’s Heartland and Chris Sainsbury’s Bark of the ‘bidgee), Bach counterpoint reimagined for saxophone quartet, and Lutheran chorales sung in Arrarnte and Pitjantjatjara, this was a stunning concert of contemporary music-making with deep roots in longstanding traditions.

JUSTINE NGUYEN – STAFF WRITER

Donald Runnicles conducts Fauré’s Requiem (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Brett Weymark, Donald Runnicles, Erin Wall and Samuel Dundas with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jay Patel

Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles has been an inspiring figure on the podium, drawing out performances of uncommon freshness and depth from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra even in the most familiar of works. This year has seen him concentrate on pieces dealing with spirituality and the sublime, with his exquisite Fauré Requiem a particular highlight. A lucid, marvellously shaped account, it was an ideal demonstration of Runnicles’ sensitive musicianship. The orchestra repaid his attentions in kind, offering up burnished strings and outstanding horn playing, as did the excellent soloists (Erin Wall and Samuel Dundas) and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, on point as always.

A Russian Gala (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Bezhod AbduraimovBehzod Abduraimov. Photo © Evgeny Eutykhov

The brilliant Behzod Abduraimov return Down Under was much anticipated, and his recital with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra did not disappoint. He’s an artist whose performances tend to exhaust superlatives, and his thrilling rendition of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto presented no such departure. This was undoubtedly a virtuosic performance, but what stood out was the lyrical, insinuating qualities Abduraimov brought to his reading. Navigating the piece’s mercurial changes of mood with aplomb, the pianist displayed both formidable vigour and finesse.

Intimate Bach (Australian Chamber Orchestra)

Australian Chamber Orchestra Intimate BachRichard Tognetti, Erin Helyard, Timo-Veikko Valve and Atte Kilpeläinen in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Intimate Bach. Photo © Prudence Upton

This playful, clever program from the Australian Chamber Orchestra saw works by Bach programmed alongside pieces by Marais, Kurtág and Brett Dean, the latter performing in a line-up that included Richard Tognetti, Erin Helyard, Timo-Veikko Valve and Atte Kilpeläinen. Playing with abundant chemistry, it feels ungenerous to single out performers or pieces in such a thoughtfully conceived, rich program, but it was very special to see Dean give the Australian premiere of his own Approach (Prelude to a Canon), a piece that swings between bristling activity and an ambivalent ease.

CLIVE PAGET – EDITOR AT LARGE, NEW YORK

Thomas Adès’s new Piano Concerto (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein. Photo © Winslow Townson

Thomas Adès is not just a fascinating composer, he’s an original – if somewhat unconventional – conductor as well. As Artistic Partner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra he led the premiere of his new piano concerto, which received a blistering performance from Kirill Gerstein as soloist. A kaleidoscopic three movement work with nods left, right and centre, and a dazzling orchestration, it’s out on CD next year. Don’t miss it. Equally enthralling were Adès’ takes on Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which framed the concerto.

John Adams, Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel (LA Philharmonic)

Yuja Wang and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

The other big new piano concerto of 2019 was John Adams’ classical-cum-funk-inspired Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? Yuja Wang, the dazzling original soloist, gave the work its New York premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. As an East Coast musical event it was a chance to hear a West Coast phenomena, one that impressed not only for the calibre of orchestral sound and precision, but by opening with Ginastera’s colourful Variaciones Concertantes it also featured eclectic repertoire that deserves a wider hearing.

 Hans Otte’s Book of Sounds (Bargemusic, Brooklyn)

A little further off the beaten track, Ivan Ilić played a series of concerts at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic, one of which was nothing short of revelatory. Hans Otte’s Book of Sounds is a 12-movement masterpiece that employs minimalist devices, yet has equally as much to do with harmonics, the texture of sound, and the importance of the silences between the notes. Grappling with a weathered Steinway on a tiny barge that bucked up and down precariously on a windy Friday night, Ilić not only kept his poise, he delivered a string of thought-provoking and frequently sublime moments that added up to a profound musical experience.

From our critics around the country…

Eumeralla (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

EumerallaEumeralla. Photo © Laura Manariti

“Superbly conducted by Benjamin Northey, the assembled forces gave a committed and moving account of this significant score, which is more than the sum of its parts.” – Tony Way

Emerson String Quartet (Musica Viva Australia)

“It’s safe to assume that all chamber music lovers will agree that it has been well worth the wait.” – Steve Moffatt

Tchaikovsky and Beethoven (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

“This was a performance of the Tchaikovsky I’ll remember for a long time.” – Paul Ballam-Cross

Symphonie Fantastique (West Australian Symphony Orchestra)

“The viola moved between sounding eerie and otherworldly, mechanical and jarring, to warm and almost vocal in its musical lines.” – Laura Biemmi

Beethoven: The Piano Concertos: Concert Four (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra)

“[Nicholas] Carter and pianist Jayson Gillham went for a rather martial approach with tassels-at-the-shoulder sort of performance – one with circumstance and flair.” – Brett Allen-Bayes

Australian Series: Renewal (Canberra Symphony Orchestra)

“The melody and harmonies closely interweave through a piece that has charm in equal measure with aura. It is very obvious it is written from the inner heart, and these three musicians played it from the same place.” – Clinton White

Johannes Moser and Kathryn Stott (Utzon Music Series)

“A stellar recital in the intimate surrounds of the Utzon Room.” – Steve Moffatt

Sibelius Violin Concerto (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra)

“An impassioned performance with fervent stage presence.” – Stephanie Eslake