As we enter a new year, with an exciting line-up of music programs to browse and concerts to attend, it’s time to celebrate the artists who thrilled us most in 2018.

For the fourth year running, the Limelight panel of critics around the country put together a shortlist of 40 outstanding musicians and ensembles – 20 Australian and 20 international artists – who had raised our hearts and souls, garnered massive applause, and delivered performances that we won’t forget. We then invited you, our readers, to add your votes.

And what a line-up it was – virtuoso musicians across a range of instruments from organ to mandolin to harpsichord, conductors and composers, opera singers, musical ensembles, and a playwright. The full list can be found at the bottom of our website. (For these awards, a non-Australian who leads an Australian orchestra or arts ensemble is considered an Australian artist).

As you’d expect, it was a tight contest. In the past, we have amalgamated the votes from our reviewers and readers. But this time, we decided to make a change and pick four winners, with two critics’ awards and two people’s choice awards. We are now delighted to reveal who you chose, along with the close runners-up…

Critics’ Choice: Australian Artist of the Year

Simone Young

Simone YoungSimone Young. Photo © Bertold Fabricius

“I’m absolutely delighted. We’re vain creatures, artists, we never get tired of being told people like us. I often go a bit out there on programming and this indicates people respond to that.” – Simone Young

Read our interview with Simone Young 

In 2008, one writer noted that conductor Simone  Young would return to Australia later that year “to throw another musical shrimp on the barbie”. Far from being flippant or condescending, the observation emphasised that, despite her by then formidable international reputation, her commitment to Australian musicians and the Australian music scene remained as steadfast as ever.

She ploughed a lonely and difficult furrow against the notoriously institutionalised misogynistic traditions in Vienna as the first woman to conduct at the venerable Vienna State Opera in 1993, and notably made her first appearance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera while she was five months pregnant in 1997.

At the zenith of her career, her concerts in Australia include not only working with the state symphony orchestras but also the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) and Australian youth orchestras. Her operatic repertoire extends from Mozart to Henze and her orchestral repertoire is equally wide. She excels in large-scale symphonies. In 2017, she conducted Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with the Australian World Orchestra, and for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted Bruckner’s rarely performed Fifth Symphony.

In 2018, she conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – arguably the grimmest, most difficult to bring off  – to universal acclaim for SSO. To resort to current argot, Young’s Mahler 6 was  “immersive”. She built the architecture like a Mughal emperor but finished each phrase like a jeweller on a Fabergé egg. For most conductors, that would be more than a night’s work, but the first half of the evening consisted of Benjamin Britten’s evanescently fevered and languorous Les Illuminations

Young’s choice as Limelight Magazine’s Artist of the Year salutes her continuing importance as both a role model and one of the world’s leading musical figures. Greg Keane 

Critics’ Choice: Runners Up

ASHER FISCH continues to make magic at West Australian Symphony Orchestra where his conducting of a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was an astonishing gift to audiences on the orchestra’s 90th birthday.

STUART SKELTON proved a true Shining Knight, as he called his debut solo album, not only on the CD itself but also in recital, and in the dramatic, vocally thrilling performances he gave as Peter Grimes at Brisbane Festival, and as Tristan for WASO.

Critics’ Choice: International Artist of the Year

Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall. Photo © David Ignaszewski 

“It’s always very special when you realise people from so many different cultures are appreciative of what you are doing. Music really is the shortest distance between people.” – Jordi Savall

Read our interview with Jordi Savall

Early in 2018 the remarkable Spanish conductor and gamba player Jordi Savall, together with Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, won a Helpmann Award for their concert Folías Antiguas & Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World, at the Perth Festival and on tour.

I missed the concert. But I had sat in on a rehearsal the day before, which I can’t help feeling might have been even better. As the musicians from Spain, Mexico and other parts of Latin America ambled into the small auditorium, casually dressed, laughing and joking before tuning their instruments, and warming up their voices and bodies, I thought this was it, the genuine spirit of spontaneity, camaraderie and joie de vivre that Savall and his collaborators have revelled in for over half a century.

The ensuing rehearsal, presided over by a severe-looking Savall who flashed a cheeky grin from time to time to reveal his true temperament, only amplified that spirit and spread it among us lucky few looking and listening on. And now here we are, with Jordi Savall named the 2018 Limelight International Artist of the Year. Such an accolade could not have come at a better time.

In his beautiful CD book Pro Pacem: Texts, Art and Music for Peace, Savall wrote: “We firmly believe that the principal enemies of mankind – ignorance, hatred and selfishness – can only be overcome by love, knowledge, empathy and understanding. Is this not the ultimate purpose of art and thought?”

For more than 50 years now, Savall has been at the forefront of an especially imaginative, inclusive and exciting historical performance practice, founding with his wife, the late soprano Montserrat Figueras, Hesperion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, as well as the prolific record label, Alia Vox.

But it’s his rich, warm, vibrant collaborations with classical and folk musicians from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere –crossover music in the best sense of the word – that will perhaps form his most lasting legacy. Will Yeoman


ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER made her Melbourne debut as well as a return to Sydney and dazzled audiences in both cities with the impassioned, breath-taking poetry of her playing, and the personality she brought to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

STEVEN OSBORNE showcased his astonishing versatility in performances around the country with the ACO, SSO and in recital, playing Dvorˇák, Brahms, Debussy and a new piano concerto written for him by the UK’s Julian Anderson.

People’s Choice: Australian Artist of the Year

Benjamin Northey

Benjamin Northey. Photo © Matt Irwin

“I’m really grateful to all of those people who voted, it was a big surprise and a real honour. I’m tremendously thrilled about winning the award. It’s something that means a lot to me.”

Read our interview with Benjamin Northey

Benjamin Northey is “one of our best conductors,” Phillip Scott wrote in his recent, glowing Limelight review of the Ballarat-born maestro’s Leonard Bernstein recording On the Town with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. He is also one of our busiest, an in-demand, flexible conductor, jetting across the country to perform meaty classical masterworks, complex new music, children’s events and Star Wars films in concert – rounding it all out with some opera and maybe a concert with Meow Meow or Megan Washington.

While he’s got regular gigs, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as Associate Conductor (he leads the popular Town Hall series) and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand, he’s a familiar face on the podium from Hobart to Perth, and everywhere in between.

Northey began his career as a multi-instrumentalist, playing in pit orchestras and taking up a position with the Australian Wind Orchestra on saxophone, but a return to university at the age of 26 to study with John Hopkins, and his 2001 win at the Symphony Australia Young Conductor of the Year Competition, launched a new career that saw him study at the prestigious Sibelius Academy in Finland and then the Stockholm Royal College of Music, before returning home to become an integral part of Australia’s musical life, giving the premieres of numerous new works by Brett Dean, Peter Sculthorpe, Elena Kats-Chernin, Matthew Hindson and others.

While he guests at orchestras overseas, Northey has largely built his career in Australia – a path which (combined with an open and entertaining stage presence) has been rewarded by an enthusiastic audience across the country, as evidenced by his taking out the Limelight Australian Artist of the Year People’s Choice Award. Angus McPherson

People’s Choice: Runners Up

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN delighted audiences with the premiere of a new work for the ACO and her Third Piano Concerto for Tamara-Anna Cislowska. The prolific, popular composer has a new opera, Whiteley, opening this July.

WEST AUSTRALIAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA has continued to go from strength to strength under the inspired leadership of Asher Fisch, cementing its reputation as Australia’s finest exponent of the German Romantic repertoire.

People’s Choice: International Artist of the Year

Anne-Sophie MutterAnne-Sophie Mutter. Photo © Stefan Höderath/DG

“This award, given by the audience, means a lot to me. I feel very humbled and very happy and proud that my visits to Australia have left a positive memory, and I’m greatly looking forward to coming back!”

Read our interview with Anne-Sophie Mutter

Few musicians can boast the technique and sheer charisma, on stage and off, of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Beyond her impressive recording catalogue, her curriculum vitae is a veritable shopping list of international awards and honours from Grammys to an honorary doctorate. She even has a street named after her in Germany.

Mutter stunned audiences in Sydney and Melbourne in June. In the Sydney performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (which she has recorded twice, first in 1988 with her mentor Herbert von Karajan and later in 2004 with André Previn) she proved again just why she’s dubbed Queen of the Violin, giving a beautiful, characterful performance culminating in a break-neck, but perfectly dispatched final movement.

Her performance in Melbourne was her first in the city, debuting with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as Soloist in Residence, though she has worked with Sir Andrew Davis in the UK. But Australians are familiar with her recordings, from her early career working with Karajan to her more recent discs, including her recording of Schubert’s Trout Quintet with pianist Daniil Trifonov and young musicians from her Young Talent foundation.

While she more than holds her own in the canon repertoire, Mutter’s name has also become linked with a number of contemporary composers whose works she has premiered, including Henri Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina, Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki. On her tour in 2018 she gave the Australian premiere of a work written for her by renowned film composer John Williams, Markings.

In her playing and in her warm, generous personality – she also ran masterclasses with Australian students when she was here – Mutter charms people wherever she goes; a fitting winner of the Limelight Artist of the Year People’s Choice award. Angus McPherson

People’s Choice: Runners Up

AVI AVITAL toured with the Giocoso String Quartet for Musica Viva and unleashed glittering sounds on the mandolin from grief-screams in Elena Kats-Chernin’s Orfeo to honeyed notes in the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No 2.

STEVEN ISSERLIS played Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with the ACO and his bravura rendition was a complete knockout, his incredible technique, phrasing and sensitivity exuding fierce emotion and passion.

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