Our History

Who we are and where we’ve come from. An overview of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’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

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 Orchestra is an orchestra of world standing.

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 Bridge.

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 Kennedy.

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 Adelaide Festival.

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 Ring cycle.

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.

Current leadership: David Robertson

In 2014, American conductor David Robertson, a frequent guest conductor since 2003, took up the post of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director. He has brought to the orchestra an extensive experience both in Europe and the United States, and a gift for persuasive programming and talking about music. His projects include annual Opera in the Concert Hall productions, collaborative programs involving film, dance and other art forms, and the creation in 2016 of the Carriageworks series, featuring music of our time in a fresh, contemporary space. Under his leadership, Australian composer Brett Dean has been appointed the orchestra's first Artist in Residence.

Concerts and beyond

The skill and dedication of generations of musicians and planners have made the Sydney Symphony Orchestra 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 SSO's Learning and Engagement Program 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. Family Concerts provide opportunities for parents to introduce children to concert-going in a lively and engaging atmosphere. And the Fellowship program, under the artistic direction of Roger Benedict, provides a key stepping stone to the profession for emerging young orchestral players.

Historical Snapshots

Historical Snapshots

To celebrate our 75th anniversary in 2007, the SSO published a series of short historical articles in the program books.

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