The 2019 APO and NZSO seasons, both announced this month, promise much for orchestral concertgoers of all stripes, with plenty of big-name artists and unexpected works snuggling close to the expected repertoire staples.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra boasts the two biggest stars of the year in one concert, with Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova accompanied by a returning Vladimir Ashkenazy. In a nice piece of symmetry, both are past winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition, while Mullova performs the concerto with which she made her name as a 20-year-old, the Sibelius.

Other big hitters include violinist Anthony Marwood, who opens the season with a work written for him, Thomas Ades' violin concerto, and James Ehnes, perhaps a little underused in Bruch's popular-but-overexposed Violin Concerto No.1.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra launched its 2019 season this week, saying collaboration is key.
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra launched its 2019 season this week, saying collaboration is key.

Budget dictates that the APO rarely relies on big names, though, and the focus drifts from superstar artists to intriguing programmes. It's a welcome return to type from the orchestra, which, since music director Giordano Bellincampi took charge, has been more conservative than it was under his predecessor, Eckehard Stier.

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Among the off-piste standouts are Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, presented in March for the Auckland Arts Festival. The work is immense, requiring more than 100 musicians, a piano soloist — the returning Joanna MacGregor, who made such an impression in 2014 with the same composer's Oiseaux exotiques — and a little electronic oddity in the form of an ondes martenot.

Another notable oddity is an August concert featuring Lou Harrison's concerto for pipa, a lute-like Chinese instrument played here by its leading exponent, Wu Man. Watch out too for APO concertmaster Andrew Beer playing Ligeti's frenetic violin concerto in June.

Only in selecting Mozart's Don Giovanni as its annual Opera in Concert does the APO's programming disappoint. NZ Opera staged this in 2014; such a swift revival is unnecessary, though a welcome break from the bankable Puccini/Verdi wheelhouse of the APO's preceding four seasons.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will sing Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre with the NZSO in March. Photo/Dario Acosta
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will sing Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre with the NZSO in March. Photo/Dario Acosta

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's programme, the first full season for artistic manager Lucrecia Colominas, is less adventurous than it has been in the last couple of years but makes up for it with a succession of major international artists, beginning in March with the wonderful mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who sings Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre.

Piano fans are particularly well served, with concertos from Denis Kozhukhin (Schumann), Steven Osborne (Mozart's delightful Piano Concerto No.12, K414) and Louis Lortie (Rachmaninov's second).

It's not only about the guest musicians, though. In a move that screams Big Artistic Statement, NZSO musical director Edo de Waart lays down his credentials in a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies across four concerts, following Pietari Inkinen's similar traversal in 2014.

In other big-artistic-statement news, de Waart is again on the podium for Mahler's Symphony No.2, "Resurrection", which features Voices New Zealand as the choir and Mahler specialist Anna Larsson as one of the two soloists.

Hakan Hardenberger conductor and trumpeter performs with the NZSO in 2019. Photo/Marco Borggreve
Hakan Hardenberger conductor and trumpeter performs with the NZSO in 2019. Photo/Marco Borggreve

The NZSO does these major works so well but, away from the standards, concerts to look out for include Jennifer Koh — another Tchaikovsky Competition winner — taking on Esa-Pekka Salonen's violin concerto, while in October the great Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger returns in a delightful-looking concert. In the first half he plays a concerto, then in the second he conducts Frankenstein!!, HK Gruber's madcap setting of children's poems for orchestra with narrator; it's a work appealing equally to adults and, if bedtime routines allow, kids.

In a season that promises so many bouquets, there are two brickbats. First, some works are simply performed too regularly. The NZSO played Beethoven's Violin Concerto in August; the APO does so next November. Where the APO played The Planets this year, the NZSO has it in 2019. There are several other examples. We all love The Planets but please stop it.

More concerning is the dearth of local composers. Across the APO's 17 2019 main-series concerts there are just two short Kiwi works and only one of them, by Salina Fisher, is new. Additionally, a new piece for tenor and orchestra pairs novelist Witi Ihimaera with composer Kenneth Young for a stand-alone show during the Auckland Writers Festival; and Phil Dadson creeps into an excellent-looking percussion concert as part of the orchestra's around-town In Your Neighbourhood series.

The NZSO fares no better, with three New Zealanders in its main podium series: NZSO chief executive Christopher Blake, Michael Norris and, again, Ken Young, the last two represented by new works commissioned to mark 250 years since Captain Cook's arrival in Aotearoa.

Next year's concert season is the most exciting for some time but seven local pieces from our two leading orchestras across a whole year — during which they will play some 100 works — feels too few. Fingers crossed for better representation in 2020.

*NZ Herald publisher NZME is a sponsor of the APO's New Zealand Herald Premier Series