Gender shouldn’t be an issue in the arts where progressive attitudes are presumed to dominate but in classical music, years of wilful blindness made it so. After persistent lobbying by dedicated souls such as composer Moya Henderson, one welcome trend in 2019 was the greater representation of Australian women composers on concert platforms, from Opera Australia’s successful mainstage presentation of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Whiteley to the showcasing of exciting talent by enterprising groups like the Song Company, the Australia Ensemble and Ensemble Offspring. Let’s hope this is the new normal. Some significant batons were passed in 2019, notably from David Robertson, outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to Simone Young whose formal take-up of the Chief Conductor role in 2022, will coincide with the reopening of the Opera House Concert Hall after two years of renovations. Carl Vine, Artistic Director of Musica Viva for 20 years, hands over the role to Canberra-born Paul Kildea.
Here are my highlights of the year:
1. Wozzeck. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Opera House (January 25)
The genius of William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck for Opera Australia was the way it created a strong and distinctive visual language completely in sympathy with, yet artistically autonomous from, Berg’s expressionist score. Wozzeck is a masterpiece of twentieth century alienation, yet is based on Georg Buckner’s incomplete fragmentary play from the 1830s. Kentridge’s hand-drawn graphics, projected on Sabine Theunissen’s set evoking World War I devastation, were set off by a brilliant performance from Michael Honeyman (Wozzeck). The production exemplified the growing artistic discernment in digital projection, moving away from gee-whiz wizardry to aesthetic and expressive purpose. Another example was Elena Kats-Chernin’s Whiteley, enriched by superb images of the artist’s own works.
2. Peter Grimes. Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Opera House. David Robertson, Stuart Skelton, Nicole Car. (July 25)
The last of the concert performances of operas that outgoing SSO Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson has staged each year, Britten’s Peter Grimes, showed that the music alone is sufficient to create the most powerful drama. Australian tenor Stuart Skelton gave a towering, elemental performance as the craggy fisherman bound to his fate as the earth is to the sea. Robertson’s final bow as Chief Conductor was a superbly paced and co-ordinated performance of Messiaen’s 10-movement Turangalila-Symphonie that creates not only its own distinctive drama, but personal religious mythology as well.