Fraser Beath McEwing reports: What the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has in store for 2021

October 27, 2020 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Tossing aside the pandemic and the problem faced by wind players blowing through face masks, the SSO has announced the programs for its 2021 season.

Considering the threat of COVID-19 again robbing audiences and musicians from meeting face to face, to say nothing of the venue gyrations caused by the refurbishment of the Sydney Opera House, programmers have put together a clever and enticing offering.

Following the established practice of catering for a wide variety of tastes in classical music, we can hear the SSO (or parts thereof) in many guises, in many places and at times that cater for sophisticated evening concert-goers through to seniors who like a cuppa with their semibreves in the late morning.

J-Wire will bring its readers reviews principally of the Abercrombie & Kent Masters Series, but we’ll include a few additional performances from the other ‘packs’ as the SSO organisers like to call them.

Sadly, there will be nothing from the International Pianists in Recital series because it has been abandoned for 2021. The official word is ‘postponed’ and I can only hope that is correct because I am passionate about classical piano. The organisers might have called upon four of Australia’s best resident pianists to play the series. I could name at least 20 capable of putting together a world-class concert. But while the music might be enthralling, I can see tiers of empty seats at the Sydney Recital Hall, and red ink for the organisers. If they struggle to sell out single concerts by Yuja Wang, Stephen Hough, Danil Trifonov and Alexander Gavrylyuk, who will come to concerts by less famous locals, even if they are just as good? I understand but nevertheless mourn the outcome.

However, Australians are front and centre in the SSO orchestral 2021line-up, even though there will be fewer concerts along with smaller audiences and numbers of musicians on stage to enable social distancing.  We’ll get baton work from chief conductor designate Simone Young (who trained at the Sydney Con), Andrew Haveron (usually found the first fiddle chair), Benjamin Northey (who has been conducting in Melbourne and New Zealand), Dane Lam (currently principal conductor and artistic director of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra), Fabian Russell (he’s conducted many Australian orchestras), Nicholas Carter (principal conductor of The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra), Benjamin Bayl (born in Sydney in 1978 and currently associate director of The Hanover Band), and Umberto Clerici (usually SSO principal cello who will swap his bow for a baton and no doubt replicate the palpable passion he puts into his cello playing).

Although Scottish rather than Australian, I claim a distant kinship with the bewhiskered Donald Runnicles, who is principal guest conductor of the SSO and will visit in May and September for some Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky. I trust there will be reliable flights by then, otherwise he’d better start rowing his wee boat now.

Australia is strongly represented by soloists, too. World acclaimed Queensland born violinist, Ray Chen, will blast open the season with the Tchaikovsky concerto; David Drury will fire up the legendary Town Hall organ with Saint-Saëns and Handel; brilliant speaker and pianist Piers Lane will cast his spell with the Greig concerto and take a third of the load in Beethoven’s triple concerto; Grace Clifford will arm wrestle the demanding Sibelius violin concerto; Konstantin Shamray will get into the ring with the Rach Three; Daniel de Borah will charm the socks off a Mozart piano concerto; Andrew Haveron will take on his third incarnation as soloist in the tortuously demanding Jaakko Kuusisto violin concerto; and recognised polymath, Stephen Hough, (he has Australian citizenship) will raise neck hairs with Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and Beethoven’s third.

There’s yet more Australian content. In the biggest project of its kind ever undertaken in Australian classical music, commissions have gone out to 50 Australian composers, (half are women and most of the composers are under 40) for works to be played by the SSO

at concerts over the next two years. Officially called ‘Fifty Fanfares Commission’ they begin by being slotted into the 2021 programs. The actual composers and their works will be announced closer to performance dates, with the exception of the opening concert in February when a work by Connor D’Netto has already been programmed.  Funded by private donations, this exciting commission venture is going to produce a few works of genius – as well as some howlers. I can’t wait to hear them.

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