Is it churlish to be feeling Beethovened-out already? Next year marks the great man's 250th birthday, so prepare yourselves for an onslaught of his work because for concert-going audiences, resistance is futile.

The NZSO's just-announced 2020 season features plenty of the German composer's music, and does an admirable job of including a couple of less-performed works, in the form of the Missa Solemnis (with the excellent Donald Runnicles on the podium and Kiwi bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu among the singers), and Weingartner's orchestration of the Grosse Fuge string quartet.

However, given that the orchestra gave a full symphony cycle this year, and the APO does so in 2020, the NZSO may have missed a trick in not offering, say, a complete set of the five piano concertos. We get the Emperor (No.5), with Deidre Irons at the keyboard, but there are retreads of symphonies three, five and six. No one can doubt the quality of the music, it's the quantity.

The NZSO does offer an interesting twist on Beethoven's ninth, though. It'll be conducted by one of the very best, Marin Alsop, on her first New Zealand visit and, intriguingly, the Ode to Joy section will be sung in te reo Māori. It's part of an international project that sees Alsop conduct the work across five continents, and which includes four new commissions from to-be-named Kiwi composers.


Alsop is one of several big-time conductors to visit in 2020. Others include the returning Vasily Petrenko, Royal Philharmonic associate principal Alexander Shelley, and the Finn Osmo Vanska, who since his appointment in 2003 has transformed the Minnesota Symphony into one of America's best orchestras.

Vanska conducts Sibelius's fifth symphony and Saint-Saens's Violin Concerto No.3 (recently presented by Amalia Hall and the APO), which features Sibelius Violin Competition winner Esther Yoo as soloist.

Overall, 2020 sees fewer star soloists than this year, which has been exceptional. It's nice to see Cameron Carpenter return, though. For all that he's promoted as the bad boy of the pipe organ, he remains a fantastic musician.

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa takes on Prokofiev's third piano concerto, under six-time Grammy Award-winning conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Lisitsa is famous as a YouTube star – and as a controversy magnet for her forthright views on the Ukrainian government – but she really can play.

New Zealand-born Gemma New is a leader among the new generation of orchestra conductors.
New Zealand-born Gemma New is a leader among the new generation of orchestra conductors.

Best of all is the return of Johannes Moser, arguably the world's leading cellist. He's playing Elgar – less adventurous than the Hindemith and Shostakovich he's performed here previously, but any chance to hear this wonderful artist should be snapped up. The concert is made unmissable by the appearance on the podium of Gemma New, the great hope of New Zealand conducting.

As well as their main series concert, the two also feature in the NZSO's exciting Shed Series. In welcome news, 2020 sees the series' Auckland debut, not in a shed but at Q Theatre. These chamber-sized concerts offer some admittedly niche music – previous gigs have included orchestral works by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, for example, and next year Moser will play a piece for solo electric cello – but it's a fantastic opportunity to see a star of Moser's wattage in an intimate venue.

The Shed Series is often used to present New Zealand compositions. Next year there will be rare outings for works by Lissa Meridan, Maria Grenfell and Simon Eastwood, and Philip Brownlee and Ariana Tikao's concerto for taonga pūoro, Ko te tātai whetū. If tucking these works away in a secondary series is a shame, we can take heart in the fact that most of these pieces will come under the loving baton of NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich, who has a gift for this music.

In fairness, the orchestra has upped its game in terms of local composers, and deserves recognition for that. Several New Zealand works appear in the mainstage Podium Series, too, including Robin Toan's Tū-mata-uenga God of War, Spirit of Man, written in 2005 when she was composer-in-residence of the National Youth Orchestra and barely heard since. And alongside older works by Lilburn and Anthony Ritchie, there's a 2019 piece from another former NYO composer-in-residence, Tabea Squire, whose Variations is based on a Renaissance love song.


Next year will be the first since Edo de Waart finished as music director; his vacated position is yet to be filled. The venerable maestro will still be around, however, in his new role as conductor laureate. He'll conduct two programmes featuring the music of Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and, of course, Beethoven.