The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has announced its 2019 season, which features new appointments, blockbuster concerts and big-name guest artists. Next year’s season is both Emma Dunch’s first as CEO and David Robertson’s final season as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director – and the maestro is going out with a bang, the season’s highlights including the return of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang and a concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes starring Stuart Skelton and Nicole Car. The season will also see the SSO gearing up for 2020, during which the Sydney Opera House’s Renewal project will mean the orchestra won’t be able to perform in the Opera House’s Concert Hall.

With 2019 being Robertson’s final year, no new Artistic Director announced, and the disruption ahead as a result of the Sydney Opera House Renewal, the SSO has announced a series of new multi-year appointments. “This is a transition year in certain ways so that was one of the things we thought about,” Robertson told Limelight. “How does the SSO move to the next chapter?”

For his part, Robertson has committed to returning to perform programs with the SSO in both 2020 and 21. “I’ll be coming back every season for the foreseeable future,” Robertson said.

Donald Runnicles conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Robert Catto

But shaping the 2019 season are several appointments, which will provide a sense of continuity moving into the future, kicking off multi-year artistic cycles spanning 2019 to 2021. Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, who led the orchestra in the SSO’s Nelson Freire Plays the Emperor and Runnicles Conducts Mahler Ten in March this year, will return as the Orchestra’s first ever Principal Guest Conductor. Runnicles performs two programs in October, the first pairing Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the second pairing Fauré’s Requiem with Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Four Last Songs, with Canadian soprano Erin Wall as soloist.

The SSO celebrates its 50-year relationship with former Chief and regular guest Vladimir Ashkenazy, appointing him as the orchestra’s first Conductor Laureate. Ashkenazy will conduct two concerts in September, one of Vaughan Williams and Elgar (with Danish-Swedish cellist Andreas Brantelid playing the Elgar Cello Concerto) and the other pairing Medtner’s First Piano Concerto – with Russian pianist Alexei Volodin as soloist – with Holst’s The Planets.

Simone Young. Photo © Monica Rittershaus

Australian conductor Simone Young will also return in 2019, under the new title Guest Conductor. She will conduct two concerts in September featuring Schubert, Liszt and James Ledger, with Canadian pianist Louis Lortie joining as soloist. In December, Young will lead the orchestra in Mahler’s cantata Das Klagende Lied.

“Next year we celebrate the conclusion of David Robertson’s acclaimed tenure as our Chief Conductor and Artistic Director and his concert weeks will be pulling out all the stops with ten blockbuster programs,” Dunch told media at a launch event in Sydney.

Diana Doherty, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

Robertson will open the 2019 season in February with a return performance of Nigel Westlake’s 2017 oboe concerto, Spirit of the Wild, featuring SSO Principal Oboe Diana Doherty as soloist on a program alongside Grainger’s The Warriors and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. In what Robertson described via video as “probably the most wide-ranging feast or presentations that I have ever seen with a Symphony Orchestra”, he’ll present works from the Australian premieres of new works by Steve Reich (alongside Janáček and Bartók) and Wynton Marsalis (in a concert that will see his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra come to Sydney) in February, to a gala concert featuring Lang Lang performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 4 in June. In July, American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham returns to the SSO, following last year’s performance of Mahler Three, singing Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne on a program with Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

July will also feature concert performances of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Following on from his performances of his signature role in concert at the Brisbane Festival later this year, Australian Heldentenor Stuart Skelton will join the SSO alongside soprano Nicole Car, mezzo soprano Deborah Humble, baritone Michael Honeyman, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and American bass-baritone Alan Held. “That’s a project that I’ve been working on getting to Sydney for about four years,” Robertson told Limelight.

Stuart Skelton, Peter GrimesStuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. Photo © Clive Barda

For Robertson, the work is perfect for the concert hall. “Although there’s a very important role for the chorus, the drama is really focussed on a kind of intimacy, on just a few characters,” he said. “Between Balstrode, between Grimes, between Ellen Orford and between the boy – who’s part of course is mute. So in a concert hall setting that actually works extremely well. And the interesting thing is that the orchestra, especially in terms of incarnating the sea, is a major protagonist.”

There’ll be more drama in the Concert Hall in November, when Robertson presents British playwright Tom Stoppard and composer/conductor/pianist André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which targets the Soviet practice of treating political dissidence as mental illness, featuring the orchestra as a key part of the action. (It will also star Mitchell Butel as Alexander and Martin Crewes as Ivanov). “This is actually a production that I saw in London in the National Theatre, done by the wonderful producer Tom Morris,” Robertson said. “His take on it and the way he presented it and the way that he makes the orchestra part of the production is something that I have been wanting to do since I saw it, I guess eight years ago now.”

The work will sit on a program alongside Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, “where the real context about which Stoppard is writing is brought forth,” said Robertson. “The ironic thing is that it ends up being a piece that although it was written about an earlier time, feels more than appropriate for our present time.”

A feature of Robertson’s tenure at the SSO has been the Australian premieres of works written overseas, particularly in America – such as Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, performed by violinist Benjamin Beilman and conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero this week – something that will carry on to the 2019 season. “We’re doing something that I’m afraid seems to have fallen out of fashion, which is when you get a new piece, you need to play it. So this is a case with the opening concert, with Nigel Westlake’s piece for Diana Doherty, The Spirit of the Wild, which is such a wonderful piece, and that we’ve played in Sydney and that we’ve played on tour in Beijing and this is a piece that absolutely deserves to be heard again not only for its compositional merits – which are substantial – but for the absolutely incredible and spell-binding performance of one of our own musicians,” he said. “The Wynton Marsalis piece, which I believe will be revised and this will be the world premiere of the revised version, is going to be something not to miss. Having the Steve Reich piece, which we co-commissioned, is again one of these connections with the larger world of music outside of Australia.”

“We close the season [in November] with the new concerto that Christopher Rouse has written also for our Principal Bassoonist Todd Gibson-Cornish. So it’s that kind of overarching idea that there is both music of the past which we know and love, and music that is being made now which becomes part of the repertoire.” That program will also feature Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite and John Adams’ Harmonielehre.

The SSO will also be launching a new initiative in 2019 – and introducing its audiences to a new venue – with a new piano festival called The Keys to the City Festival taking place in August at The International Convention Centre’s Darling Harbour Theatre, which will see Robertson conduct a series of concerts with pianist Kirill Gerstein. While this is the first official piano festival, it’s not the first residency Robertson has brought to the SSO, with Emanuel Ax joining the orchestra for A Mozart Celebration last February. “I think it’s wonderful because what you see develop in the time is this real closeness of the relationship,” Robertson said. He sees the longer residencies as a chance to indulge that feeling of “Gee, I wish they could stay a little longer” that the orchestra gets with great soloists. “Particularly when you have a soloist who is as versatile in repertoire as someone like Kirill Gerstein,” Robertson said. “To have him be able to do several programs and for audiences to really enjoy the vast variety that his musical intelligence embraces, is part of the joy of having someone come in for a longer period of time.”

The 2019 season will also feature a string of guest conductors including Elim Chan, Alexander Shelley, Xian Zhang, Andrey Boreyko, Mark Wigglesworth, Benjamin Northey, Lawrence Renes, Jessica Cottis and Jaime Martin. West Australian Symphony Orchestra Chief Asher Fisch will also visit the SSO for a concert of Bruch and Mendelssohn in March.

Orchestral seasons have come under increased scrutiny recently over the representation of women composers – a survey of leading orchestras’ 2018-2019 seasons (which included the SSO’s 2018) found only 2.3 percent of works were written by women – and while rising star Ella Macens will make her SSO debut in 2019 on the May Meet the Music program with her 2017 work The Space Between Stars, the SSO’s mainstage season will see fewer works by women progammed than in 2018, which featured Jennifer Higdon and Elena Kats-Chernin. “In the past there was very definitely a gender barrier for people to be involved, and this had to do both with performers and it also had to do with the directors, and it had to do with people who were the creators of music,” Robertson said. “Trying to find a balance where you feel you are both providing opportunities for everyone and having a wide range is something that is always challenging and you’re always thinking about what can you do to start moving the things in the right direction. There is still, I think, something of a prejudice against conductors who are female. It’s a wonderful state of affairs that one of the world’s great conductors happens not only to be female but also Australian, and this is Simone Young, and of course she has demonstrated this incredible ability she has with our orchestra in many programs. To have her back, doing substantial works in that way, is something that I’m really pleased about.”

The SSO’s 2019 season will also see the Cocktail Hour chamber music series expanded, including Sunday afternoons, and new “Double Gold” and “Triple Gold” multi-year subscription freeze prices for 2020 and 2021 to coincide with the multi-year artistic cycles.

“It’s very exciting, having any opportunity to work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on any kind of repertoire, whether that is repertoire of the past or repertoire of the present,” Robertson said. “And I think the thing that excites me the most is this enormous capacity that they have to inhabit music of lots of different styles and lots of different periods with such an expertise and such a fluidity, that it reminds one of really great actors and actresses who just seem to incarnate a role whether it’s one that is in comedy, in tragedy, in drama from, written in the last few months or a drama that is thousands of years old.”


The Full Season

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine