Wesley Enoch was booed when he said next year’s concert will be in Parramatta – but it’s not a decision he’s taken lightly.

Over the past 30 years, Symphony Under the Stars has become a much-loved summer tradition in Sydney, attracting large crowds, with enthusiastic fans packing a picnic and arriving early to stake their claim to a spot close to the temporary stage in the Domain. But the free concert, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as part of the Sydney Festival, is to relocate to Parramatta Park from January 2018.

Symphony under the Stars. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

As a one-off, the Festival programmed two Symphony under the Stars this year – a farewell concert in the Domain, which took place on Saturday, and a concert which will take place in The Crescent, a natural amphitheatre seating around 18,000 people in Parramatta Park, on January 28. The programme, conducted by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Nicholas Carter, includes Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which has concluded the concert year in, year out, complete with obligatory fireworks.

The Daily Telegraph broke the story about the relocation in December, but the news clearly hadn’t reached many of the audience on Saturday. Either that or they wanted to make their disappointment felt, for when Wesley Enoch, the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival, strode on stage and announced that this concert would be the last in the Domain, there was booing from the crowd.

Worse still, Norman Lebrecht’s website Slipped Disc ran a report which claimed: “….almost 100,000 people booed and screamed continuously [at Enoch]…..With all the screaming, you couldn’t hear him talk over the stadium sized PA system and it only stopped when he walked offstage laughing on the giant screens at everyone’s reaction.”

Though 100,000 people is a wildly inflated figure ­– Enoch told Limelight that Sydney Festival estimates put the crowd at between 20,000 and 30,000 in recent years, having dropped from around 80,000 at the height of the event’s popularity – a concert-goer confirmed that there was booing, which seemed to take Enoch by surprise.

“There wasn’t that much”, Enoch said of the heckling, adding that he understands why some people are disappointed by the decision. “I think people feel genuinely like something that they’ve held very dear for a while is changing, and they don’t want it to change”.

“I think there’s a bit of grief involved and I understand that, but you’ve got to weigh up, as an Artistic Director, what the greater good is, and what other opportunities there are to talk to those audiences that have been doing this for 32 years. I think you’ve got to find the root of the tradition – and the root of this tradition was saying, ‘for those who have never experienced a symphonic concert how do you get access to that?’ And I think going to Western Sydney is part of that for me.”

As for him smiling at the audience response, Enoch was clearly genuinely taken aback. “Oh, that’s a misreading,” he said. “I think I was trying to smile. I knew people would be hurt by it. We haven’t gone into it without thinking about it. That’s a shame some people felt I was laughing. The first time I said it there was a bit of a response and I had a bit of a nervous laugh. The second time, when I walked off, I went [to myself] ‘just keep smiling, this is a tricky time for people.’ I hope people didn’t misread that. I [made the announcement] out of respect to those people who really believe in [the event]. But people have to accept that things do change.”

Enoch says that the Sydney Festival is “weighing up what is the role of the Festival and thinking about how to offer new things to Sydney, and how to reach new audiences.”

“There are a lot of offerings in the city now in terms of orchestral music. Thirty odd years ago there weren’t so many and my feeling is that in continuing the tradition of giving people who aren’t accessing orchestral music the chance to see it we are just giving it a geographic shift.”

He is also looking at presenting new events in the Domain, the Village and in parks around Sydney.

Symphony under the Stars. Photo by Prudence Upton

Limelight also asked the SSO about the decision to relocate. “Symphony in the Domain is part of Sydney Festival, and the SSO is hired by the Sydney Festival to perform,” said SSO Executive Director Rory Jeffes. “Therefore, the decision rests with Sydney Festival. The SSO believes it’s important for the Sydney Festival to do what it believes is right in servicing the needs of its audience.”

Opera Australia on the other hand has presented its own free concert, Opera in the Domain, since 1982, and will do so again this year on January 21 as part of Sydney Festival. The company is also considering relocating the event to Parramatta, if it is deemed to be financially viable.

“Opera Australia do their own thing and we umbrella it,” said Enoch. “Sometimes it has been in the Sydney Festival and sometimes it hasn’t. In recent years, it has been. So they pay for all of that themselves and then they pay a contribution to the set-up costs.”

In a statement, OA Chief Executive Officer Craig Hassall said: “Opera Australia has presented free concerts in the Domain for over 30 years, commencing with Dame Joan Sutherland performing in La Traviata for an enthusiastic crowd in 1982. Over the decades, many of Australia’s greatest singers have enthralled audiences every January. We have been delighted to be a part of the Sydney Festival in presenting these free concerts and are exploring the potential to relocate and continue this tradition in Parramatta. Western Sydney has a reputation for diverse and family oriented entertainment and Opera Australia looks forward to the possibility of working more closely with this community.”