Current Issue #488

Passing the baton: The ASO searches for a new conductor

Passing the baton: The ASO searches for a new conductor

On the lookout for a new principal conductor, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is on a global search to replace Nicholas Carter.

It only seems like only yesterday when Nicholas Carter made headlines as the first Australian conductor in almost three decades to take on the top position at a major Australian orchestra. Indeed, he was also one of the youngest conductors ever to do so – he was just 29 years of age when the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) took him on as its new principal conductor.

But life has changed since he took the reins in 2016. Now he has two kids, a house in Klagenfurt in Austria, and is director there of the State Theatre opera company and Kärntner Symphony Orchestra.

It is time to move on, for Carter, who is winning increasingly prestigious engagements in Europe, and for the ASO. After their final concert together this July – with Bruckner’s Fifth and Grace Clifford in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto – they go their separate ways.

And that means the ASO must find a replacement. This could be an alarming situation, but it is not. When the ASO announced Carter’s appointment in 2015, it knew that he was on an upward trajectory. It was a decision that would allow them to enjoy the ride together. When July comes around that ride will have lasted a relatively short term of three years and five months, the undisputed highpoint of which was a legendary performance of Brett Dean’s Hamlet in the 2018 Adelaide Festival. On the strength of that, Carter will conduct Hamlet again at New York’s Met, which is another phenomenal achievement for him.

Carter in action

There is more to come here in Adelaide, though. Joining Carter in all five Beethoven piano concertos in Elder Hall in June will be fellow young gun, pianist Jayson Gillham. This cycle will be recorded and issued as a set by ABC Classics – the first time this label has done so. Expect Carter to return here in future years, too: he is already pencilled in as a guest conductor for 2020.

Before then, however, a new head conductor has to be found. Managing director Vincent Ciccarello and Simon Lord, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, are unfazed and surprisingly relaxed as they talk about how this big job will be accomplished. Already in place permanently, they explain, is a Chief Conductor Search Committee whose task it is to look around for possible candidates, no matter who is already installed or where they stand in their term.

“This is the key difference to where we were five years ago,” Ciccarello says. “There is a fluid list of people who we want to see, or have seen. We monitor those relationships and sometimes we want to see them again.

“The days of the 20-year term of a conductor are long gone,” Ciccarello continues. “That timespan no longer reflects the needs of either the orchestra or the audience. We all feel quite proud of Nick’s appointment. He was a very young man at the time, and we extended his contract, but it has come to its conclusion. His career has taken off overseas, and although to the outside world his departure seems disruptive, his time with us is coming to a natural end.”

Are there other young Australian conductors on the horizon? “Internationally, certainly we are seeing several, although within Australia it is different,” says Lord.

“Here it is about sometimes having to take a risk, a punt.”

“While we’d like to have a pipeline of Australian conductors coming through, that pipeline doesn’t exist, and that needs to change,” Ciccarello says. “Nevertheless, numerically we fare pretty well with Australian conductors.”

He mentions some younger names who have fronted the ASO recently as examples. From Seattle, Washington, is Thaddeus Huang: he assisted Carter with Hamlet and will conduct a Mozart Matinee in July. Brisbane-born Dane Lam, who led the ASO in its festive Chinese New Year concert in February, is another.

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

For the moment, others in the ASO’s artistic team will remain where they are. UK conductor Mark Wigglesworth stays on as principal guest conductor until the end of 2019, as does violinist Pinchas Zukerman as artist in association. “We are talking to both gentlemen about continuing their relationships with the orchestra,” notes Ciccarello. Natsuko Yoshimoto stays on as concertmaster for the foreseeable time, too, even though she and her husband, Imants Larsen, the ASO’s associate principal viola, are relocating to Brisbane following his appointment to the QSO as principal viola.

Meantime, the ASO’s connections with China only continue to grow. Last August, a contingent of 12 players and staff travelled to Harbin, capital of that country’s northernmost province. There they performed ‘Bush Concert’, a family oriented musical tale with music composed by jazz pianist-composer Mark Ferguson that tells of how a community of birds pull together to survives a drought. “It drew an overwhelming response and featured prominently on Harbin TV news,” Ciccarello notes.

Concerts such as these, he believes, are important because they represent ‘soft diplomacy’ at its best in Australia’s growing international relationships and because they bring orchestral music to new and different communities. “At heart we remain a Western symphony orchestra, but we are keen to present the orchestra in a different light,” says Ciccarello. “Presenting more community type celebrations such as the Chinese New Year concert are important in this.”

Grabbing his attention right now, though, is the aforementioned ASO’s Beethoven piano concerto cycle and their first performance of Bach’s St John Passion in 57 years, coming up in April under renowned UK conductor Stephen Layton.

Lord is particularly excited about a new double concerto by Israeli- American composer Avner Dorman to be performed by Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in June. It’s a co-commission with the Boston Symphony Orchestra no less, he mentions. Then there is rising Finnish- Ukrainian conductor Dalia Stasevska in August. She is the first female to be appointed to a conducting position with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and just happens to be married to composer Lauri Porra, the great-grandson of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Plenty to look forward to before the ASO makes its big announcement.

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