Smartening Up: changes ahead for the ASO

The announcement of a new chief conductor, clearer and more streamlined programming, and a renewed push for its own dedicated concert hall.

The announcement of a new chief conductor, clearer and more streamlined programming, and a renewed push for its own dedicated concert hall – these are the top agenda items for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s CEO, Vincent Ciccarello. In his first year in the job he has taken a broom to the orchestra’s previously cluttered program and introduced an overdue clarity to its concert offerings. And just around the corner are bigger changes. The orchestra has decided on a successor to Arvo Volmer and will shortly announce who its new chief conductor will be. “I think it will surprise many, both here and internationally,” Ciccarello says. “I’m not too proud to say that the ASO is one of the world’s great orchestral secrets. Visiting conductors often say this quite spontaneously. We need to tell it to the world now, and I think the conductor decision will reflect that. The deal is not done yet but we expect to be able to make an announcement in the next couple of months. I think it will be a genuine surprise.” Orchestral watchers might have thought frontrunners for the job were UK conductor Nicholas McGegan, who only last year was appointed the ASO’s Artist-in-Association, or the young Australian Nicholas Carter, its new Associate Guest Conductor. Others who looked in contention are fellow Brits Martyn Brabbins, Mark Wigglesworth and Garry Walker, all of who have made return podium appearances in the last 12 months. More of a surprise, though, would be Australian-born, Glasgow-based Jessica Cottis, who has fronted the ASO two years running. Think of it: if selected, this would make her the first female chief conductor of an Australian orchestra. Meanwhile, the ASO’s concert packaging is already undergoing a major overhaul. Ciccarello has introduced a simplified range of concerts that replace what had become a ragbag in previous years. The nine-concert Master Series remains the orchestra’s mainstay, but gone is the somewhat shapeless Gala series. In its place are Great Classics and, for newcomers to classical music, Classics Unwrapped, a series of short, informal early evening concerts conducted and narrated by ever-entertaining Guy Noble. Says Ciccarello: “Our concerts need a compelling narrative to underpin each series, and the aim particularly was to remove barriers for people coming to the ASO. People can be intimidated about the length of a piece or about not knowing what is the difference between a symphony or concerto. “People today are used to short excerpts of classical music from listening to drive-time radio. So it made sense to create a series based around familiar tunes, providing an opportunity to introduce friends and family to listening to concerts, and keeping concerts short so that at the end of the day people still have time for other commitments.” Traditional orchestral audiences are not forgotten either. “Research recently delivered to us showed that audiences are extremely loyal, with around 75 percent having been to previous concerts,” he says. “We should never underestimate the importance of our most loyal subscribers. It means if we can get people to come along for the first time it is likely we can hang onto them, if we can remove the barriers.” This year, lovers of the heavier end of the repertoire can look forward to that most stupendous of scores, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, under Arvo Volmer’s direction in November, and his Four Last Songs with US soprano, Christine Brewer, in June. Ciccarello also singles out as a “major coup” Sarah Chang in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, especially as he was able to persuade this much sought-after US violinist to also perform Ravel’s Tzigane while she visits Adelaide in March. But the boldest project the orchestra is tackling this year is a semi-staged version of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For this, Nicholas McGegan is using his own edited version of the play in which the composer’s complete incidental music is interspersed between dialogue. “He put the idea to us, and we thought that if we do it, we should do it seriously,” explains Ciccarello. “So we have taken it to the State Theatre Company and have come up with what as far as I know is the first such collaboration between the two companies. You’ll see the Town Hall transformed with fairy lights”. What the ASO needs more than anything else is a new permanent home. Ciccarello says it is vital for its orchestra. “We are now the only orchestra in the country that does not have its own dedicated performing venue. It does not help support making a visible presence in the city. We love playing in the Town Hall, but we need to perform concerts there twice now and in the process have to pay double the rent and fees. We’re happy to perform in the Festival Theatre too, but the acoustics there have their limitations, which has always been understood. “Having our own concert hall will be vital to the orchestra’s sustainability.”

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