Vladimir Ashkenazy Extends His Stay with the Sydney Symphony.

Vladimir Ashkenazy extends his stay with the Sydney Symphony. 5.5.2011 (TP)

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photo Credit: Ralph Heimans

The Sydney Symphony has announced that Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Sydney Symphony’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Director since 2009, has agreed to extend his stay with the orchestra until the end of 2013.  The extension adds one year to his current four year contract, which would otherwise expire at the end of 2012.

Ashkenazy is widely credited with having reinvigorated the Sydney Symphony since he was announced as the orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor designate in April 2007.  Over the past few years he has done much to boost the confidence of his players.  Ashkenazy has been quoted frequently here and abroad praising the qualities of the orchestra, often comparing his Sydney band to the best in London, and he has set out to prove it.  He has led the orchestra in critically acclaimed performances in the Opera House Concert Hall.  His presence on the podium has enhanced the Sydney Symphony’s ability to attract renowned soloists, such as the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissen who makes his Sydney Symphony debut this September.  He has also been responsible for increasing the orchestra’s touring activities.  In 2009 the orchestra visited mainland China for the first time.  Last year, it raced through the main music festivals of the European summer.  This year, it visits Korea and Japan.  And then there are recordings, both for Ashkenazy’s Japanese label Exton and for the orchestra’s own Sydney Symphony Live imprint.

Confidence and prestige do not always walk hand in hand with strong financial performance.  Happily, with Ashkenazy waving the baton they seem to skip arm in arm.  The Sydney Symphony’s 2010 annual report discloses increased ticket sales, with the orchestra recording its highest total ticket sales on record in 2010, and a return to operating surplus, with 63% of the orchestra’s income in 2010 being self-generated.  (The Sydney Symphony is the only Australian symphony orchestra that generates more of its income than it receives from government.)  While the orchestra’s financial health speaks positively for its management team and its innovative programming generally, there is no question that Ashkenazy has been good for the bottom line.

One of the keys to Ashkenazy’s success has been his penchant for composer festivals, in which he presents a series of concerts dedicated to the examination of a particular composer, usually over a concentrated few weeks.  They started with the Sibelius festival of 2004, followed by Rachmaninov in 2007 and Elgar in 2008, all prior to his taking office as Principal Conductor.  The first year of his term, 2009, yielded a Prokofiev festival. Each of these festivals has generated excitement, ticket sales and live recordings.  In 2010 and 2011, the composer in the spotlight is the biggest orchestral box office draw of all: Gustav Mahler.  Like many orchestras around the world, the Sydney Symphony is currently ploughing through the Mahler’s symphonies in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth in 2010 and the centenary of his death in 2011.  Unusually, as well as the nine numbered symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde, the Sydney Symphony is including in its “Mahler Odyssey” the performing version of the Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony prepared by Ashkenazy’s late compatriot, Rudolf Barshai.  So far, the Opera House Concert Hall has been full or close to capacity for each of the concerts in this series, and the live concert recordings are slowly being released on the Sydney Symphony Live label.

For all of these reasons an extension to Ashkenazy’s existing contract makes perfect sense.  What is surprising is the extension’s duration.  It is unusual for conductors to commit themselves for only a year at a time.  Has Ashkenazy, who turns 74 in July, now decided not to commit to dates that are more than a couple of years away, or has he lined up a new role for himself elsewhere that will only commence in 2014?  Perhaps the orchestra needs the extra year to find a suitable successor to Ashkenazy, as few are likely to be available to take the Sydney Symphony’s podium in just 18 months at the beginning of 2013.  Whatever the case, Sydneysiders will hope that Vladimir Ashkenazy’s relationship with the Sydney Symphony will continue in one guise or another for many years to come.

Tim Perry