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Utzon Music Series

Reflections on 10 years of incredible music in an exquisite space

Yarmila Alfonzeti
Curator, Utzon Music Series

It is not an exaggeration to say that I feel like the Utzon Room in the Sydney Opera House is my home. This isn't to say that I have slept there, or cooked a meal there. But in that space I have had the pleasure of experiencing all of life’s most potent emotions. I have cried in that room and I have been kissed in that room. My whole world – everything I think about – has been shifted innumerable times in that very space.

I will never forget my very first Utzon Music Series concert in 2008. It was only a few weeks after I started working at the Sydney Opera House. Marshall McGuire, the brilliant harpist and, as far as I’m concerned, one of Australia’s youthful living treasures, had programmed a concert combining the Grygoryan brothers with the Tawadros bothers. Of course this is a combination we now know well, but Marshall was one of the first to hone a genius knack for piecing together wonderful musicians and brilliant repertoire. I happened to wander into Stage Door at the same time as Slava and Leonard Grygoryan, who both held open the door for me and offered to carry any equipment, assist me in any way and join me for a coffee.

It’s this opportunity to be close to the artists, to see them as real people, that gives all of us the connection and appreciation that we feel for this unassuming chamber and recital series. The Utzon Music Series is one where we truly meet the artists, the musicians themselves, these exceptional, interesting, talented and complex people who draw me into my work every day. 

"The Utzon Music Series is one where we truly meet the artists, the musicians themselves."

Yarmila Alfonzeti, Curator, Utzon Music Series

Its creation just over ten years ago was thanks to Philip Rolfe, an inspiring man who was the first person to see the potential of the beautiful Utzon Room, as well as a gap in Sydney’s concert offering. Its growth has been thanks to a long and illustrious list of cultural champions who have become leaders of the arts, including Marshall McGuire, Jonathan Bielski, Rachel Healy, Richard Evans and Louise Herron. Their success is due, in part, to their innate ability to manifest an idea, no matter how small, that will improve our cultural landscape. This is precisely what the Utzon Music Series has achieved.

As I gradually took over the programming and producing of this Series (which, after so many years now, really does feel like my baby), many people would ask me to describe my programming philosophy. My cheeky answer is always “good-looking." In fact, all things considered, the Utzon Music Series artists really are all very good looking. I’ll never forget the blue eyes of Sasha Rozhdestvensky, the mesmerising demeanour of Christian Tetzlaff, the smooth foppish fringe of Freddy Kempf, the skin-tight sheath worn by Nicola Benedetti and the long perfectly golden hair of Simone Dinnerstein.  

The star is always the artist, and their muse is the best repertoire from the canon of classical music. But only in a venue as intimate as the Utzon Room is there a third character and that is us – the audience. Because we are there, seated as friends side-by-side, clutching that perfect glass of wine so well-deserved on a Sunday afternoon, unusual and personal things are said and done.

Lisa Gasteen brought tears to our eyes talking about the struggles of an international operatic career, Susan Graham declared that her living room was bigger, and the Brodsky Quartet gave us more than we should ever expect with three days of all fifteen Shostakovich string quartets. Roger Woodward refused to go on until the room temperature was raised by one degree Celsius, we blew out birthday candles on hundreds of cupcakes for Marshall McGuire’s 50th celebratory concert (and no-one more deserves Happy Birthday sung to them by Teddy Tahu Rhodes), and I watched Thomas Ades inhale two hamburgers right before he walked on stage.

We experimented with a concert outside on the Bennelong Lawn where I Musici gave us the Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and we took over the Concert Hall because I really wanted to hear what that genius Cameron Carpenter could do with the Opera House organ. Ian Bostridge made his Australian debut in the Utzon Room, and I have listened to almost as many Winterreises as I have Goldberg Variations in this Series (both personal fixations of mine).

And now, as we mark the tenth year of this small, beautiful, musical gift, I am taking an opportunity to reflect on all the wonderful concerts I have seen and heard, and how those moments hidden away from the demands of the world are some of the most precious we can ever have. As life gets busier and more superfluous, I hope you will join me in seeking out this exquisite refuge.

Mahan Esfahani
One of today’s most exciting musicians to watch and hear, Mahan Esfahani will change your mind about the harpsichord. Part of the Utzon Music Series.

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