David Robertson’s eclectic programme of new and old mixes Trifonov and Ibragimova with Dutoit and Ashkenazy.

Martha Argerich will make her long-overdue Australian debut next year as part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 season. The Argentine musician heads an impressive list of soloists that includes fellow pianists Daniil Trifonov and Hélène Grimaud, plus the return of violinist Janine Jansen. Other highlights will include Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, who celebrates a remarkable 40-year relationship with the orchestra, and who will direct a concert performance of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande, a return visit from Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting two concerts of music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Simone Young who will be in Sydney to conduct Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.

Violinist Janine Jansen

Catching up with Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson ahead of the season launch, he waxes lyrical about the SSO’s ability to change gears at will. “What’s amazing is the diversity you can get with the orchestra,” he says. “It’s a little bit like working with Cate Blanchett – there isn’t the part that she can’t do. That means that you can have Vova [the SSO’s former Chief Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy] looking at the whole corpus of Beethoven, you can have me doing John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 or a week with Wynton Marsalis. It’s so exciting.”

That confidence in the versatility of his band has clearly influenced the breadth of the programming for 2017, but beneath the variety and shimmering veneer there are deeper currents at work. “We wanted to look at various ways in which the Russian repertoire expanded,” Robertson explains. “It begins with Glinka, and there are all these canonic ideas of The Mighty Five, but when you look at in greater detail there’s this huge diversity. So there’s the Shostakovich way, there’s the Rimsky-Korsakov way, there’s the Prokofiev side of things.”

Pianist Daniil Trifonov

What Robertson describes as the “anchor” of his season are the four Rachmaninov piano concertos. “When you listen to No 1 and then you listen to No 4, you can’t believe they are by the same composer.” For its quartet of soloists, the SSO has pushed the boat out. Young Russian superstar Daniil Trifonov will play the First (as well as a juicy looking recital at Angel Place), American pianist George Li plays the Second, and the mighty Third and Fourth are taken by a fine pair of Aussies: Piers Lane and Simon Tedeschi respectively. Programming all four is part of Robertson’s avowed mission to “explore a composer” and bring audiences “closer to the music.”

In a season strong on keyboard players, Hélène Grimaud will play Brahms First, Orli Shaham (Gil Shaham’s sister and Robertson’s wife, who is back following her stint on this year’s SIPCA jury) will play Mozart and a thoughtful recital centred around Brahms, and award-winning Perth-based British organist Joseph Nolan who will play Widor (the famous Fifth Organ Symphony) and Liszt. But the real coup has to be Argerich, playing Beethoven’s sparkling First Piano Concerto and making her Australian debut at 75. “We’re really lucky,” Robertson tells me, admitting that getting her was pretty difficult. “She and Charles Dutoit have an incredible musical relationship – it’s a real mind-meld.”

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey

Robertson himself will be in Sydney four times in 2017 and his eclectic pallet will range from Haydn to Ravel (the complete Daphnis and Chloë), and from Dvořák (the New World), to Walton’s epic Belshazzar’s Feast. He opens with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in a programme featuring the return of Maxim Vengerov to Sydney as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. Vengerov, who garnered five star reviews last year, is one of a host of string soloists including the return of Jansen to play the Sibelius Concerto, Alina Ibragimova’s Australian debut playing Bartók, Baiba Skride playing Prokofiev and in a must-see event, Dutch wizard Pieter Wispelwey playing the Bach Cello Suites.

In a typical three week Robertson smorgasbord in July, he starts a series of concerts with Mahler’s Third Symphony before ranging off through Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Daphnis, John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, a new work by Australian composer Kate Neal and Boulez’s flute-inspired memorial to Stravinsky, …explosante-fixe… Mahler is a composer that Robertson conducts in moderation – he says he never takes Mahler for granted and is determined that his palate will never become jaded through a surfeit of the Austrian titan – but he’s particularly looking forward to playing it in Sydney with Susan Graham as soloist. “I was the one who pushed her into Mahler,” he says. “She wasn’t sure about it, but I got her to do one of her first Mahler Threes. It’s something that so fits where her voice is going right now.”

Mezzo soprano Susan Graham

Other exciting vocalists include Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea and mezzo Michelle DeYoung who will star in a concert performance of Bartók’s psycho-dramatic Bluebeard’s Castle, as well as Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu and British baritone Andrew Foster-Williams (returning to Sydney after his fine Elijah of a couple of years ago) who sings Bach and narrates in Walton’s Belshazzar. Another Robertson favourite is classically trained singer and songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke (she was in his Death of Klinghoffer at the Met). In an SSO first, she will present an evening of her witty, sometimes irreverent, frequently poignant songs with full orchestra.

As for contemporary music: “I always look forward to the new pieces,” says Robertson, focussing in particular on Stephen Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool – named for the Greek goddess of memory – which receives its first Australian performance and Peter Eötvös’s secular oratorio Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum, a wry work in which a stuttering prophet describes the world as he sees it today. “When you know them, you know how they view the musical world. When the composers are alive you can talk with them about what’s going on politically in Hungary, or the US or Ukraine. Or what’s going on in fashion of digital technology. They’re people who are living through what we are living through.”

Composer, conductor and violist Brett Dean

There’s more as well from Artist in Residence Brett Dean who’s back to conduct new works at Carriageworks. His own Dream Sequence  – “a surreal journey from the sensations of drowsiness and the sometimes alarming workings of the subconscious to final awakening” – sits alongside works by Finnish-born improvising-violinist and composer Erkki Veltheim, sonic artist James Hullick, Liza Lim (The Heart’s Ear – a meditation on a Sufi melody) and Đuro Živković’s Bach-inspired On the Guarding of the Heart.

Finally, the big hitting maestros lead off with Charles Dutoit, celebrating not only his 40th year of music making with the SSO, but also his 80th birthday. He conducts Argerich, coincidentally his former wife, and also a concert performance of Pélleas et Mélisande with star French soprano Sandrine Piau and baritone Elliot Madore.

Maestro Charles Dutoit

And last but not least, the season finale sees the return of the much-loved Ashkenazy who will conduct a pair of signature Shostakovich symphonies, the Fifth (the famous ‘Soviet artist’s practical creative answer to just criticism’) and the war-torn Eighth. The programmes each feature concertos, with ray Chen playing the First Violin Concerto and Daniel Müller-Schott in the First Cello Concerto.


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