Season Preview: Your guide to the arts in 2021

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has announced its 2021 season with a program of 75 concerts led by Chief Conductor Designate Simone Young, who takes up her Chief Conductor role in 2022, and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, who was knighted a few days ago in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to music.

With COVID-19 restricting international travel, there is a new focus on Australian artists, with 19 internationally recognised Australian soloists and conductors performing with the SSO in 2021, some for the first time. The program also includes 15 world premieres of short works by Australian composers as part of the SSO’s 50 Fanfares project.

There are four female conductors – Young, American Karina Canellakis, New Zealand-born Gemma New, and Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevka. The latter three are each making their SSO debut, as are Dutch-Australian conductor Benjamin Bayl and British-Australian conductor Finnegan Downie Dear.

Karina Canellakis. Photograph © Chris Christodolou

Emma Dunch, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s CEO, says the SSO has partnered with other state orchestras to request permission to bring the international conductors into the country “so that we can present the Federal Government with a national tour for the artist, which increases the likelihood of getting the correct visas and entry permits for those people. It’s a small group but a prominent international group of artists.”

The 2021 SSO season is smaller than usual, with concerts taking place at Sydney Town Hall while the refurbishment of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall  – the orchestra’s usual home – continues throughout 2021. There will also be fewer tickets available, due to current coronavirus restrictions.

“Overall the season is 40 percent reduced [compared to] a regular concert season in the Sydney Opera House,” says Dunch.

“We would normally do 120 concerts. Next year there are only 75 and the COVID restrictions allow us to [sell] about 50 percent of the [seats] in the Town Hall at the moment. The Town Hall seats 1700 so that means we can fit about 850 people for each concert [so] we will have very limited ticketing capacity unless the restrictions are lifted. We really encourage people to respond quickly, to take their ticket money on credit from this year and use it to buy a subscription ticket for next year because we expect to sell out.”

The orchestra itself will also be smaller in order to ensure the musicians can be socially distanced on the Town Hall stage.

“We have 104 full-time musicians and if you look closely at our season you will see that the large late-Romantic masterworks are missing. We love that repertoire and so does Simone Young but we cannot fit sufficient musicians on stage safely; we can fit about 70 people so sadly we are delaying Strauss, Mahler, Rachmaninov, large Tchaikovsky. Those composers are mostly delayed until 2022 when we anticipate that we will be back in the Concert Hall and have more space in order to present that repertoire,” says Dunch.

Simone Young, SSO Chief Conductor Designate. Photograph © Nic Walker

Repertoire in 2021 ranges from Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Brahms to Britten, Shostakovich, Thomas Adès, Lisa Illean and Jonny Greenwood. The program includes two Australian premieres – Jaakko Kuusisto’s Violin Concerto in a concert of Finnish music conducted by Dalia Stasevska, and Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight conducted by Benjamin Northey. The orchestra will also give the first live performance of Harry Sdraulig’s Hat-trick, performed by SSO flautist Joshua Batty, oboist Diana Doherty and bassoonist Todd Gibson-Cornish, for whom it was composed. Hat-trick was released online by the SSO in July.

The focus on Australian artists is one of the silver linings of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID has many impacts of course, the most prominent being the difficulty of bringing in artists from overseas that we had already booked to perform with us in 2021, so what we are presenting today is a completely new season anchored still by lead conductors Simone Young, our Chief Conductor Designate, and Donald Runnicles, our Principal Guest Conductor, but virtually everything else changed,” says Dunch.

“It’s been a wonderful adventure and what a fantastic opportunity to provide a high-profile showcase for Australians – both Australians here and Australians overseas who are able to return in a number of cases from busy international careers where calendar gaps have opened up and we have come in and said ‘please come back to Australia and work with us’. [These are] people that we would previously have had difficulty securing because of the travel and distance, who are able to return and perform for Australian audiences for the first time in a long time.”

Some of the Australians that feature in the season are conductors Nicholas Carter and Dane Lam, violinists Ray Chen and Grace Clifford, and pianists Daniel de Borah, Piers Lane and British-born Australian citizen Stephen Hough.

The season opens in February with Simone Young conducting Tchaikovsky’s lush, popular Violin Concerto featuring Australian violinist Ray Chen as soloist, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and a new work by Queensland composer Connor D’Netto (chosen by Limelight last year as one of the Gen Next musicians to look out for) – the first of the 50 Fanfare commissions to be given its world premiere.

Some of the Australian composers commissioned by the SSO for its 50 Fanfares project. Photograph © Jay Patel

“The 50 Fanfares project is one of the largest commissioning projects in Australian history. The timing of it was coincidental to COVID but what a marvellous opportunity that 50 Australian composers, half of them women, and many of them composers under 40 [will see their work premiered],” says Dunch.

“It’s a wonderful confluence, if you could describe it that way, of our ability and opportunity to showcase their work across the next season and have them appear and talk about their compositions, sit with audiences, produce digital content, and really get inside the music of today. Simone Young personally selected Connor D’Netto’s work. She listened to the compositions of all 50 composers [before we commissioned them]. She met with a number of them while she was here over her last couple of visits and she selected Connor’s work. He has been commissioned to write a piece that is related to Dvořák’s New World Symphony and he is busily underway.”

Other 50 Fanfare commissions already programmed include works by Lachlan Skipworth conducted by Asher Fisch in March and Mary Finsterer conducted by Young in August. The other 50 Fanfare commissions will be announced in February. “The ones that are named are the ones that the conductors have selected,” says Dunch. “We are in the process of allocating the other compositions across the season into the slots allocated as we hear more from the composers about the orchestral forces, the nature of the composition etc. So we are juggling the jigsaw pieces together but very excited about how it will all work out.”

Several SSO principals will feature in the season. Concertmaster Andrew Haveron will lead and direct Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross in March. Principal Cello Umberto Clerici will pick up the baton when he conducts a program featuring Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 17 with Australian pianist Daniel de Borah. Principal Clarinet James Burke will make his soloist debut with the SSO with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, conducted by Asher Fisch in March, and Principal Flute Joshua Batty will debut as soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s Halil, conducted by Runnicles in May.

“We wanted especially to provide soloist opportunities for our brand new wind principals. In the last year the Sydney Symphony has competed successful against other symphonies in the world to lure Joshua Batty, Principal Flute, and James Burke, Principal Clarinet,” says Dunch.

“These are two truly spectacular musicians of the next generation. They are fantastic players. We lured them away from London and we are so thrilled to have them in our wind section. The sound is transformed by their [presence]. They are there with Diana Doherty, Principal Oboe, Todd Gibson-Cornish Principal Bassoon, and it’s just lifting the sound of the whole section. So our first priority was to put those two gentlemen front and centre and show what they are able to do.”

Principal Cello Umberto Clerici will conduct as part of the 2021 SSO program. Photograph © Jay Patel

“Our Associate Concertmaster Harry Bennetts, a young Australian who again was appointed in the last year, is also a tremendous talent of the next generation so it’s an opportunity for audiences to hear Harry play as well. We will work to feature our orchestra principals fairly across a five-year time space. A number of our musicians would like to grow careers as conductors and composers so [it was a question of] how can we support their artistic growth? And so it’s a complex alchemy of what we think audiences would enjoy, what the musicians are interested to do next in a lifetime career with the orchestra, and how the conductors with whom we collaborate would like to partner with the soloist,” says Dunch.

The one-hour Symphony Hour concerts, introduced to the 2020 season, will return with Australian Dane Lam conducting the first in February. Lam – who made his debut with the SSO at the age of 18 – will conduct a concert featuring Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3, Organ Symphony with organist David Drury, and Water by Jonny Greenwood.

“Symphony Hour is something we are very excited about: short one-hour concerts at 7 o’clock, without an interval, again coincidentally perfect for COVID,’ says Dunch.

“We launched it [in the 2020] season and it sold through the roof to young people, students, older people who wanted a shorter concert. So we were so disappointed to have to cancel that series after just two performances. We launched it with The Rite of Spring and did Scheherazade next, then we had to cancel in March. So we wanted to make sure that we were able to do it again this season and essentially relaunch it because we think it is something that could carry on well into the future. It’s a real opportunity for more adventurous, edgy programming.”

SSO will be presenting its 2021 program with COVID Safe practices in place that will meet all the NSW Health regulations and requirements. There will be digital and home printed tickets to avoid physical handing, audiences will be encouraged to wear masks (even though they are not mandatory in NSW), and a number of concerts will run without intervals to avoid queues at bars and toilets.

“[Queuing to get in and out of the venue] is the number one concern for our patrons and we have worked closely with the City of Sydney so that all doors to the Sydney Town Hall will be open for the first time. You will go to your coloured coded door and through multiple entries proceed directly to your seat,” says Dunch.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing in Sydney Town Hall pre-COVID. Photograph supplied

Because restrictions are likely to change over the course of time, SSO will be allocating its subscriptions in a different way to usual.

“We would normally sell a subscription for the year, allocate the tickets and send people an envelope full of tickets for the year. Because of COVID we can’t do that so what we are essentially doing is taking ticket orders but we are not taking any money. We are asking for a deposit on the purchase but we aren’t seating anybody until two to three weeks before the performance. So if the regulations change – and they have been changing constantly – we will know how many people we can put in the hall,” says Dunch.

“So, it’s a new way of working but it’s much more audience friendly and from a business perspective it allows us to be as flexible as possible as the government regulations change.”

During the shut-down of theatres and concert venues due to the pandemic, arts organisations have done a huge amount to develop their digital platforms – something which Dunch believes is here to stay.

“The Sydney Symphony pivoted to digital production in about 10 days of COVID lockdown and we made a deliberate choice to program the music of living Australian composers. Between March and September, we recorded 188 pieces of live performance content and put them out on the Internet. About 50 percent of those were works by Australian composers and chamber works performed at City Recital Hall. It rated off the charts in terms of the Internet.”

“It’s a fantastic platform for promoting Australian composers, Australian performers and Australian music, and as it opened up during COVID we undertook a strategic planning process with a view to what next after we return to the Opera House after 2022? We were looking at 2023 onwards and we determined that we would pursue a three-pronged approach: to deliver extraordinary performances on stages, on screens and in communities. So for the first time that digital work and that community work will be equally as important to us as the work that we do on stages in Sydney – which is appropriate for a leadership cultural institution working to expand reach, expand access to music, and profile the artists and composers of our country internationally.”

“The digital work was a revelation for us. We brought Simone Young back to Australia for five weeks and she recorded four full-length concerts with us in City Recital Hall and Town Hall which have yet to be released. We will be releasing them in conjunction with launching this season, so watch out for those online. She recorded Australian and other chamber music with our musicians, player directing from the piano, she conducted chamber music, and she conducted full orchestral repertoire in the Town Hall which is fabulous – her heartland with Strauss and Mahler. The content looks fantastic, it sounds incredible and I am excited for audiences to see it,” says Dunch.

“So we have kept ourselves busy in the digital realm. We expect that it will now become an anchor of our work moving forward. We are reconceiving how we work and how we present concerts to ensure that we can provide those to audiences who are lucky enough to get one of the limited number of COVID tickets in the hall, or to people who would like to participate by maybe staying home and watching on their computers. It’s a whole new world and a very exciting one.”

Full details of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra 2021 season

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