You wait five years for a Beethoven cycle then two come along at once.

The headline act of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's 2020 season, revealed this month, is a traversal of the great composer's nine symphonies. It follows in the wake of the headline act of the NZ Symphony Orchestra's 2019 season, which was a traversal of the great composer's nine symphonies.

The close proximity of the two cycles is unfortunate but the reasoning is sound. Next year marks Beethoven's 250th birthday, and the NZSO says it chose to perform the symphonies under music director Edo de Waart this year so as not to clash with the anticipated deluge of Beethoven in 2020. The APO, meanwhile, has never played the full set in this way, and presents its cycle as part of Auckland Arts Festival, which was also keen to mark the great man's quarter-millennium.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has unveiled its 40th anniversary season. Photo / Adrian Malloch
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has unveiled its 40th anniversary season. Photo / Adrian Malloch

"We identified a Beethoven 250 cycle as something we'd do when Giordano started here in 2015," says Ronan Tighe, who, as director of artistic planning, pulls the orchestra's programmes together. "When the NZSO announced its cycle, we had to decide if it was right to do one hot on their heels but I think the artistic reasons are as compelling now as when we first thought of it, and the initial sales show there's a demand."

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The APO sprinkles its birthday celebrations with a series of Beethoven-related events, including several commissions that reflect on his work, which means we'll hear new music from Dame Gillian Whitehead and the exciting trio of Chris Gendall, Alex Taylor and Celeste Oram.

Next year isn't just a significant birthday for Beethoven; the APO itself turns 40. If there are occasional hints of the orchestra settling into pipe-and-slippers middle age – the return of warm-glow staples like the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos, and Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar – that is offset by less-performed works by the likes of Janáček (Taras Bulba) and Jennifer Higdon, and a new concerto by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, written for the APO's principal bassoon Bede Hanley.

After the recent double bill of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Viktoria Mullova, and following appearances from James Ehnes, Wu Man and Joanna MacGregor, next year feels short of star soloists. Tighe points instead to conductors like Robert Spano, hotly tipped up-and-comer Anja Bihlmaier, and Yu Long, who is in charge of the major Chinese orchestras and was the April cover star of classical music bible Gramophone.

A soloist always worth keeping an eye on, though, is pianist Olli Mustonen. He'll play Shostakovich's first piano concerto, on a night that will also see the world premiere of local composer Ross Harris's Symphony No.7.

Acclaimed NZ pianist Michael Houstoun appears in his last performance with the APO in July orchestra before he retires at the end of 2020. Photo / Jane Ussher
Acclaimed NZ pianist Michael Houstoun appears in his last performance with the APO in July orchestra before he retires at the end of 2020. Photo / Jane Ussher

Tighe points to July's Houstoun Plays Rachmaninov concert as one to look out for. The composer's third piano concerto is supported by music from the wonderful Russian Sofia Gubaidulina and Nielsen's Symphony No.4, Inextinguishable. It will be Houstoun's last performance with the orchestra before he retires at the end of 2020.

If Beethoven is the headline act, the APO's annual Opera In Concert is its Big Artistic Statement. Next year it's Britten's psychological masterpiece Peter Grimes, arguably the most important British opera since the 1680s. The fine English tenor Toby Spence leads a cast that features a number of Kiwis, including Teddy Tahu Rhodes, rising soprano Natasha Wilson (Zerlina in this year's Don Giovanni), and former champion show jumper and Otago rugby rep Jud Arthur. Arthur sings Hobson, a role he has performed for recent Grimes productions in Sydney and Brisbane.

"Peter Grimes is definitely my highlight of 2020, no question. I've been wanting to do it since I started here," says Tighe, who joined the APO in 2010.

A bustling coral reef in Fij - one of the settings inspiring the Blue Planet II concert APO will play next year. Photo / Alex Mustard
A bustling coral reef in Fij - one of the settings inspiring the Blue Planet II concert APO will play next year. Photo / Alex Mustard

Grimes falls later in the year than is usual for the APO's operas. That's to avoid a clash with the World Symposium of Choral Music, for which the APO performs Haydn's The Creation, with soprano Anna Leese among the solo singers.

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As usual, there's plenty for the kids, with live cinema performance of Wallace and Gromit, Room on the Broom and Home Alone. And following this year's popular play-along to the David Attenborough documentary Planet Earth II, in 2020 the APO paddles out Blue Planet II live in concert.

NZME, publisher of The New Zealand Herald, is a sponsor of the APO.