Umberto Clerici has announced his second season as Chief Conductor of Queensland Symphony Orchestra; a season centred around a musical style and a philosophical theme – an idea that he introduced last year.
“My ambition is to create a web of interconnected programs in which each concert has a clear unique storyline that develops through a unified arc,” says the Italian-born conductor and cellist.
Highlights include the continuation of his Mahler cycle with the Mahler 7, a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 which can be viewed for free on screens outside QPAC, a theatrical presentation of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Clerici trading his baton for his cello to play Brahms’ Double Concerto with QSO Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto, and an expanded regional touring program.
The repertoire for 2024 centres on Romanticism, with music by the German Romantics including Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, as well as composers such as Puccini, Berlioz, Sibelius, Dvořák and Smetana. There are also a number of contemporary works and two world premieres by Paul Dean and Bernard Hoey.
In terms of composers, it’s male-dominated, with nearly 50 men and only six women – Lili Boulanger, Anne Cawrse, Helen Grime, Elena Kats-Chernin, Caroline Shaw and Grace Williams.
The philosophical theme is the ‘Outer World’ – music that describes the world we live in. Speaking to Limelight, Clerici cites a concert called Spirit of the Wild, which he will conduct, as an example.
“It’s this project about climate, not only [climate] change,” he says. “John Luther Adams is planning to come here to do his Become Ocean [which explores] the idea that the world might get back to being an ocean if we continue to behave like his. So that is about climate change, with a big orchestra that plays in waves. Nigel Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild with Diana Doherty on oboe is about the wildness of the Tasmanian landscape. And we start the concert with chaos – The Depiction of Chaos from Haydn’s The Creation – so how the universe started. But in a way, with climate change and [its] danger, it could also be the endgame.”
Clerici – who will be on the podium for 21 concerts during the year – is excited at the improvement he has seen in the orchestra since he became Chief Conductor. “Part of my brief and my interest was trying to take the orchestra [on] a journey that also will make them more internationally-minded, not just in terms of names, but also in terms of what we mean for a city,” he says.
“What is an orchestra? Why do we have a symphony orchestra in a big city? That, for me, is a service, like you have a hospital with cancer research. A big city needs to be offering the possibility for the entire society to actually advance.”
Extending the reach of the orchestra across the city and state is one of the ways Clerici hopes to do this. For the first time, the full orchestra will perform in Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville and Toowoomba, as well as in the outback town of St George, where it will give community and schools performances, as well as workshops. This new program will run parallel with the established annual tours to Gladstone and Chinchilla, Miles, Roma and Tara, with additional visits to the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Redlands.
What’s more, the world premiere of Paul Dean’s new work about the Great Barrier Reef will have its world premiere in a Symphony Under the Stars concert in Port Douglas in May, conducted by Clerici, and will also be performed in Cairns and Townsville.
“I am delighted that QSO is expanding its reach in Brisbane and more broadly across the state, striving to be the orchestra for all Queenslanders,” says Clerici. “As artists, I believe that we should be part of the social debate about society and the world in which we all live, whether that is with you in person or via our music shared online.”
Clerici opened the 2023 season with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Choral, alongside Kalkani by William Barton and Véronique Serret, and Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, featuring Barton on didgeridoo. It was the first time the orchestra had programmed three performances of a classical concert, and they all sold out.
In 2024, Clerici will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth again, but at the end of the year. This time, not only will it be performed in front of a live audience in the QPAC Concert Hall, but at the same time, it will be shown on huge screens on the outside of the building, so that family audiences and watch it for free as they sit by the river.
The 2024 season will open in February with Clerici conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, which celebrates the power and grandeur of nature as it moves from night to day. Clerici decided to begin his Mahler cycle in 2023 with the Sixth Symphony (which he conducts on 22 and 23 September), starting where former QSO Music Director Alondra de la Parra left off.
Clerici says that performing it is “a big stimulus for the orchestra because Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra played Mahler 7 at QPAC [in 2023], so the orchestra feels the responsibility to [measure up]. Of course, it’s an unfair comparison with such an orchestra and such a Mahlerian conductor like Simon Rattle, but it’s actually exciting because it shows our ambition – not our arrogance, but our ambition.”
He will follow the concert theme in March with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Jupiter, in a concert that also includes Takemitsu’s Rain Tree.
In 2023, he included a theatrical element when presenting Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote, involving actor Eugene Gilfedder. The audience response was so positive that Gilfedder will return in 2024 for a theatrical presentation of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, described by Clerici as “Berlioz’s evocative cocktail of opium and desire”. By way of introduction, Gilfedder will explain Berlioz’s life story.
“In 2025, we are doing a project with John Bell on Shakespeare and his life with Shakespeare,” says Clerici.
For the 2024 Closing Gala, Clerici will swap his baton for his cello, for a concert in which he and the QSO’s Concertmaster Natusko Yoshimoto will perform Brahms’ Double Concerto.
“Everybody asked me, ‘Why don’t you play?’ And I said, ‘Well, listen, I don’t think it’s the right place for a conductor to play also with his orchestra. It’s like you want to do everything,’” he says.
“[Eventually] I said, ‘Okay, if we really want [me to] play, I think we should do something that is not a concerto where I display my cello playing, but something that makes sense in our journey. Brahms’ Double Concerto was supposed to be his Fifth Symphony. It’s a symphonic work, it’s not a pure concerto. That already makes a very different feeling with the orchestra.”
He and Yoshimoto will lead the orchestra, without a conductor. “That is a very difficult thing to do for an orchestra,” says Clerici. “But it’s important for an orchestra to be independent, so that is why I said, ‘Okay, let’s do a symphonic work that is done in a chamber music way, without a conductor, with me and the concertmaster.”
Conductors in the season include Asher Fisch, Jaime Martín, Nicholas Carter, Johannes Fritzsch, Benjamin Bayl, Eduardo Struasser, Katharina Wincor and Jen Winley, among others, while international musicians include pianists Nobuyuki Tsujii (who was born blind) and Denis Kozhukhin, violinists Francesca Dego, József Landvay and Jack Liebeck, as well as British vocal collective VOCES8.
Bernard Hoey’s new work for string quartet will be given its world premiere in August in one of the Chamber Players concerts, presented at the QSO Studio.
The season will include a small secondary series at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Clerici believes that its size – 600 to 700 seats depending on the configuration – makes it a good balance between the 1,700-seat QPAC Concert Hall and the QSO Studio, which seats up to 350. “And the acoustic is amazing.”
Other concerts include QSO Favourites, a Puccini Opera Gala, three performances of Mozart’s Mass in C minor at St Stephen’s Cathedral, as part of its 150th-anniversary celebrations. QSO will also continue the recently launched warrma pippa project, created in partnership with William Barton, which seeks to develop the next generation of First Nations storytellers and song-makers.
More information about the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s 2024 season can be found here.