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Adventures in Chamber Music: Your Guide to the Utzon Music 2024

From world-class vocal music to the Afghan rabab, this year’s Utzon Music Series takes you on a musical journey like no other

Sydney Opera House

The Utzon Music Series returns in 2024 with an exciting array of chamber music featuring some of Australia’s favourite artists alongside exciting international guests, many of whom are making their Sydney Opera House debut in the House’s most intimate venue. From adventurous string quartets to powerful pianists, charming trios, vibrant vocal music, masterly winds and a genre-defying musical journey with the Afghan rabab, this year’s series is bigger and bolder than ever before.

Adventurous string quartets

In 2024 the Utzon Music Series features not one but two adventurous American string quartets, both making their Sydney Opera House debuts. Based in Brooklyn, New York, string quartet Brooklyn Rider takes its name from Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a pioneering artistic collective formed before World War I, whose members included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Arnold Schoenberg. A century later, the four musicians of Brooklyn Rider – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas ­– have been described by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as performing “with the energy of young rock stars jamming on their guitars”. They are renowned for their vibrant performances of traditional chamber repertoire and exciting new music – and this is exactly what the quartet is bringing to the Utzon Room in March. Their program spans Shostakovich and Dutilleux to the quartet’s own Colin Jacobsen and Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, written at the turn of the 21st century in response to violence in the Middle East, it was described by Gramophone as “a lament for string quartet that somehow smiles through its tears.”

Also hailing from New York, the JACK Quartet have made a name for themselves with compelling performances of challenging and experimental music. Critics have described them as “boundary-pushing” and “eye-opening” and even “head-spinning”. The quartet formed in 2005 with violinist Christopher Otto and violist John Richards as founding members, while violinist Austin Wulliman and cellist Jay Campbell joined the group in 2016 – JACK is an acronym formed from the first letters of the four founding members’ first names. Their program in April spans music of the Renaissance to new music by Johnny MacMillan and Amy Williams. They also perform String Creatures by brilliant experimental Australian composer Liza Lim, which was written especially for the quartet in 2022 and explores the nature of strings themselves ­– the composer envisions the musicians as “a hybrid organism, as a multiplicity of bodies and minds and desires.”

Powerful pianists

Experimental music enthusiasts will also be delighted by New York-based Australian pianist Lisa Moore’s return to the Sydney Opera House in March. Presenting a quirky program inspired by bugs and birds, Moore traverses 180 years of music history from Robert Schumann to the 21st century. Moore is celebrated for her interpretation of music by legendary minimalist Philip Glass and she performs his Kafka-inspired Metamorphosis II on this program. Glass’s music “has a stirring pull on the ear, perhaps it’s an anxiety and sadness that lies hidden beneath the surface,” Moore told Limelight in an interview. “There’s an unrest coming from the tug, between the irregularity and the regularity of the phrases and the overall structure.” Moore also performs the music of long-time friend and collaborator Elena Kats-Chernin as well as music by her partner, Martin Bresnick, and American experimental composer Meadow Bridgham. Moore is a stunning performer and musical communicator – this program is sure to captivate and fascinate.

For lovers of traditional piano repertoire, you can’t go past concert pianist Konstantin Shamray who brings a stunning recital of masterworks to the Utzon Room in November. Celebrated for his powerful performances, Shamray has been a fixture on the Australian and international scene since his outstanding win at the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition. Limelight’s Shamistha de Soysa described a 2021 performance by the Russian-born virtuoso “a thrilling and profound experience of programming and performance”. His larger-than-life playing will set the Utzon Room ringing in an unmissable recital.

Charming trios

The latest release in the Berlin-based Trio Gaspard’s ambitious Haydn Project was praised by Gramophone for bringing to Haydn’s music “a freshness, a warmth and a sense of humour that feels entirely on Haydn’s wavelength.” The award-winning piano trio – violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha, cellist Vashiti Hunter and pianist Nicholas Rimmer – brings this freshness to their Sydney Opera House debut in August. The Haydn Project sees the trio setting out to record ‘Papa’ Haydn’s complete music for piano trio alongside music commissioned by living composers – including the new Piano Trio written by Helena Winkelman that appears on this program. Hear Trio Gaspard perform music by Haydn, Winkelman, Sandor Varess, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt in a feast of chamber music treasures.

Fancy a little French music? Prize-winning piano trio Trio Karénine was founded in Paris in 2009 and is named after Leo Tolstoy’s bold heroine Anna Karenina. Comprising violinist Julien Dieudegard, cellist Louis Rodde and pianist Paloma Kouider, the trio brings a program inspired by the music of France and Spain to the Utzon Room in May, presenting the first Piano Trios of Camille Saint-Saëns and Joaquín Turina, alongside Maurice Ravel’s gorgeous Basque-inspired Piano Trio in A minor. You can hear the trio perform the Ravel on their beautiful 2018 album, Fauré, Ravel & Tailleferre, but it promises to be even more compelling live and up close in the intimate setting of the Utzon Room. 

Vibrant vocal music

The human voice is spectacularly represented in two concerts in the 2024 Utzon Music Series. British octet VOCES8 are a vocal phenomenon and their performance in June is the only concert to be held in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. The group has been praised by Limelight’s Clive Paget for both its “silken vocals” and “gift for global outreach”. This is their second visit to Australia and they are bringing a diverse program spanning classical music to pop and jazz – and it will be a cracker of a performance. The group is joined by English violinist Jack Liebeck, a regular on the Australian scene in recent years, both as a soloist and as the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville. He appeared on VOCES8’s festive album A Choral Christmas as well as their gorgeous recording of Vaughan Williams’ beloved The Lark Ascending, arranged for choir and violin, which will only be more majestic when he performs it live with the octet in this concert.

Soprano Siobhan Stagg has been wowing the critics in Europe and America – as well as at home in Australia. “Stagg’s musicality and dramatic intelligence is paired with an instrument that only seems to get more beautiful and richer each time you hear it,” wrote Limelight’s Justine Nguyen. Stagg’s latest album saw her join with pianist Nico de Villiers to celebrate the music of Dutch-born American composer Richard Hageman, in a series of world premiere recordings. Stagg and de Villiers perform Hageman’s haunting songs in the Utzon Room in July, alongside songs by Richard Strauss and Henri Duparc, whose music influenced Hageman. A regular on the world’s opera stages, this is a chance to hear Siobhan Stagg work her magic up close.

Masterly winds

The LA Philharmonic Wind Quintet features five elite musicians plucked from the wind section of one of the world’s greatest orchestras. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is famous for its exciting performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl under the vibrant maestro Gustavo Dudamel. Crowd favourites in the 2019 Utzon Music Series – Limelight described it as a “masterly” recital – the LA Philharmonic Wind Quintet returns in September with Denis Bouriakov on flute, Marc Lachat on oboe, Boris Allakhverdyan on clarinet, Whitney Crockett on bassoon and Adelaide-born Andrew Bain on French horn. Experience a high-energy concert spanning Jean Françaix and Carl Nielsen to contemporary composers Valerie Coleman and Australia’s Ross Edwards – as well as selections from West Side Story (the Los Angeles Philharmonic joined the New York Philharmonic on the soundtrack for the 2021 film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic musical).

A genre-defying musical journey

The music of American-Afghan instrumentalist, composer and producer Qais Essar explores centuries of music history while remaining absolutely contemporary. A virtuoso on the rabab, a plucked stringed instrument similar to a lute, Essar’s performances have been described as “spell-binding” and his influences include Afghan and Indian folk and classical music as well as the likes of minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley. “Always adventurous and thoughtful, Essar and cohorts respect tradition while maximising its currency,” the Sydney Morning Herald’s Eugene Ulman wrote of Essar’s 2020 EP Shakar Shack Vol 1: Gulaab Jammin’. “The music grabs you and pulls you along without asking for agreement. You’re never told where you’re going as your companions continuously take risks and make unexpected detours, but you always feel safe and comforted.” Essar performs in the Utzon Room in October with Murtaza Damoon joining on tabla for what will be an unforgettable experience.

Find more about Classical Music at the Opera House