Who we are and where we’ve come from. An overview of the Sydney Symphony’s history.
Our Chief Conductors
- Eugene Goossens (1947-56)
- Nicolai Malko (1957-61)
- Dean Dixon (1964-67)
- Moshe Atzmon (1969-71)
- Willem van Otterloo (1973-78)
- Louis Frémaux (1979-81)
- Charles Mackerras (1982-85)
- Zdenĕk Mácal (1986-87)
- Stuart Challender (1987-91)
- Edo de Waart (1994-2003)
- Gianluigi Gelmetti (2004-08)
- Vladimir Ashkenazy (Principal Conductor 2009-2013)
- David Robertson (from 2014)
History of the Orchestra
The Sydney Symphony today
Resident at the Sydney Opera House, touring frequently,
performing around 150 concerts a year to a combined annual audience
of more than 350,000 - the Sydney Symphony is an orchestra of world
The history begins
A permanent symphony orchestra is a sign of a city's musical
maturity, and Sydney moved closer to achieving this when the
Australian Broadcasting Commission was established. That was in
1932, the opening year of another symbol: the Sydney Harbour
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra had a promising predecessor. From
1919 to 1921 the orchestra of the New South Wales Conservatorium,
conducted by the Belgian Henri Verbrugghen, gave regular
professional symphonic concerts in Sydney, as well as touring
Australia and New Zealand.
1932. The first ABC Sydney Symphony Orchestra
The new Commission enlarged the studio orchestra it had
inherited from the Australian Broadcasting Company to 24 permanent
players, and this group sometimes performed as the ABC Sydney
Symphony Orchestra. Some the players who had joined before 1932,
such as flautist Neville Amadio and timpanist Alard Maling,
remained leading members of the orchestra for decades.
ABC broadcasts from the studio stimulated public demand for
orchestral concerts, but at first public concerts, for which the
orchestra was augmented, were special events. These included the
Brahms and Wagner Festival in 1933 under Australian conductor
Bernard Heinze, and concerts in 1934 under Sir Hamilton Harty, the
first overseas conductor brought to Australia by the ABC.
1936. Subscription concerts begin
In 1935 the ABC - led by its Chairman William James Cleary,
General Manager Charles Moses and Music Advisor Bernard Heinze -
increased the Sydney orchestra to 45 players, augmented to 70 for
public concerts. The result was a permanent orchestra suitable for
concerts as well as broadcasts.
The following year the ABC launched its first Sydney series of
subscription concerts. Sir Malcolm Sargent was the featured
overseas conductor, followed by Georg Schneevoigt, George Szell and
others. Soloists included the pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Artur
Schnabel, and returning Australians such as cellist Lauri
During World War II, concerts such as the Beethoven festivals fed
a public hunger for great music, many Australian service men and
women had their first experience of orchestral music in special
concerts. As musicians enlisted, more women joined the ranks of the
orchestra, and resident soloists and conductors filled the gap left
by international visitors. Bernard Heinze continued audience
development in school, children's and youth concerts.
Goossens and the modern SSO
Following the recommendations of visiting conductor Eugene
Ormandy, the ABC built the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to full
symphonic strength, collaborating with the state and municipal
governments. An 82-player orchestra gave its first concert in
January 1946, and Eugene Goossens was persuaded to become the
orchestra's first Chief Conductor (and Director of the
Conservatorium), beginning in 1947.
Goossens said he wanted to make Sydney's orchestra 'among the six
best in the world'. He also said Sydney must have an opera house,
and chose the Bennelong Point site. Goossens introduced Sydney
audiences to orchestral works old and new, and many were Australian
premieres, including Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and
Australian John Antill's Corroboree. His 1953 EMI
recordings were the orchestra's first international releases.
Notable guest conductors during the Goossens years included Otto
Klemperer, Rafael Kubelik, and Sir John Barbirolli. Goossens
appointed players who were to shape the orchestra's sound for
years, notably Ernest Llewellyn as concertmaster. Llewellyn's
predecessors included Lionel Lawson, his successors Donald
Hazelwood (another long-serving concertmaster), John Harding,
Michael Dauth and Dene Olding.
Goossens was succeeded as chief conductor by Russian Nicolai Malko
(who died in Sydney), American Dean Dixon, and Israeli Moshe
Atzmon. In the 1960s, ABC Director of Music and conductor John
Hopkins initiated and conducted the Town Hall Proms concerts, still
fondly remembered today. In 1965 the orchestra made its first
international tour, including an appearance in the Edinburgh
Festival. Noted composers who have conducted the orchestra include
Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Witold Lutoslawski, and more
recently Thomas Adès.
Stability under Otterloo
The orchestra's next long-lasting relationship was with Dutchman
Willem van Otterloo. Notable milestones of his term were a 1974
tour to Europe, following the orchestra's first concerts in the
Sydney Opera House, opened in 1973.
One of the conductors in that opening season was Australian
Charles Mackerras, a former oboist in the orchestra. In 1982 he
became the orchestra's first Australian Chief Conductor, succeeding
Frenchman Louis Frémaux. Mackerras conducted Wagner in concert in
collaboration with the Australian Opera, and the Australian
premiere of Berlioz's Trojans. When Mackerras fell ill in
1985, the young Australian conductor Stuart Challender stepped in.
Following the brief tenure of Czech Zdenĕk Mácal, Challender was
appointed Chief Conductor in 1987.
Promise under Challender
Changes in the ABC's management of music and concerts had given
the orchestra, in 1985, its first general manager, Mary Vallentine,
and under Stuart Challender the orchestra's international
reputation and commitment to Australian music increased.
Music by Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine featured on the 1988 tour
of the USA, and their works along with those of Ross Edwards were
issued on ABC Classics CDs, conducted by Challender. Among the
performance highlights were Mahler symphonies and Wagner, including
staged productions of Tristan and Isolde in Sydney and the
Growth and change under De Waart
After Stuart Challender's early death the orchestra forged a
relationship with noted Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. As Chief
Conductor he guided the orchestra on tours of Europe and Japan and
Taiwan, and made many recordings with the orchestra for ABC
Classics. The orchestra played a major role in the 2000 Sydney
Olympics and the Olympic Arts Festival, including a performance of
Mahler's Eighth Symphony and the culmination of a concert
New players were appointed, recruited from Australia and overseas,
including returning Australians. The Sydney Opera House Concert
Hall, already its main venue for performances, became the
orchestra's home for rehearsals.
In 1994 the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was identified as
Australia's flagship orchestra in Prime Minister Keating's Creative
Nation policy. Funding for increased player numbers, recording and
touring accompanied steps towards eventual divestment of the
orchestra from the ABC. The relationship with the ABC continues
through broadcasts of most of the orchestra's concerts, some of
which are also streamed on BigPond.
International impact: Gelmetti and Ashkenazy
In 2004 Gianluigi Gelmetti, a regular guest since 1993, became
Chief Conductor. Gelmetti conducted all the Beethoven symphonies in
2007, and a concert presentation of Puccini's opera La
Rondine complemented earlier Wagner ventures. Gelmetti will
also be remembered for idiomatic Debussy and Ravel, and for his
Shock of the New concerts. Australian Liza Lim was Composer in
Residence from 2005 to 2007.
In 2004 Vladimir Ashkenazy, returning as a conductor, renewed his
relationship with the orchestra, which had begun in the 1960s with
the first of his appearances as a pianist. Two weeks of Sibelius
programming proved an artistic highlight and set the template for
annual composer festivals: Elgar, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.
In 2009 Ashkenazy became the orchestra's Principal Conductor and
Artistic Advisor. He has taken the orchestra on tours to Europe and
Asia, and conducted a Mahler symphony cycle in 2010-2011, one of
several projects linked with recordings on the Sydney Symphony Live
label (established in 2006) and Japan's Exton/Triton label.
Concerts and beyond
The skill and dedication of generations of musicians and
planners have made the Sydney Symphony the fine instrument it is
for concerts, broadcasts and recordings, and extended its activity
throughout the community.
Eugene Goossens pioneered open-air concerts, taking advantage of
Sydney's climate and physical beauty. The annual Symphony in the
Domain concerts now attract crowds of over 100,000. Each year the
orchestra presents performances in outer metropolitan and regional
centres, and children's and education concerts.
The Sydney Symphony's Education Program, directed by the visionary
Richard Gill, helps ensure the orchestra's future audiences and
players. Its antecedents are in the Youth Concerts (begun in 1947)
and the ABC's training orchestras. The Youth Concerts have since
become Meet the Music, with programs mixing standard, new and
Australian music. The Discovery series features the Sinfonia
training orchestra, which gives young players experience of the
repertoire and the profession, playing alongside mentors from the
In 2014, American conductor David Robertson, a frequent guest
conductor since 2003, will become the orchestra's Chief Conductor
and Artistic Director. Robertson's extensive experience both in
Europe and the United States, and his persuasive performing and
talking about music, will allow him to take up all the thriving
activity of the Sydney Symphony, adding initiatives of his own.