Things have got a bit more theatrical at Queensland Symphony Orchestra since Italian-born conductor Umberto Clerici came aboard as chief conductor.

He’s as entertaining to watch as the orchestra is to listen to and under Clerici the QSO has much to say. They proved that again at the weekend and everyone was listening.

Micro Masterpieces, presented in the Concert Hall at QPAC on November 18, was the QSO’s last Maestro concert for the year and it highlighted the conductor and orchestra’s evolving, productive and very entertaining partnership.

Clerici shapes phrases which smile, swoon, snarl and charm. Rhythmical elements fizzed, danced and skipped off the stage. The woodwind sang with clarity. Even the silences he commands have unusual presence. A rich imagination and immense enthusiasm fuels Clerici’s detailed direction (his style is quite theatrical) and there’s a freshness in the orchestra’s sound.

Clearly a fan of classical repertoire with its emphasis on melody, structure and balance, Clerici thoroughly illuminated the architecture of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, Mozart’s Symphony no 39 and Schubert’s Symphony no. 5. Notably, he invested each composer’s language with a compelling voice. If Mozart’s shiny tone sparkled, Schubert’s was mellow and Rossini’s intense.

Clerici highlighted the musical contrasts whether it was a chatty flurry between strings and woodwind, spiky or smooth execution, or swiftly alternated roared and whispered dynamics. There were stunning moments when a unified ensemble shimmered on a surprising harmonic change and yet, for all of these virtues, the program was bland, the selected items worthy but insufficiently varied to reset and delight the ear.

A concerto soloist or a smaller chamber piece or even a solo drawn from classical repertoire could have added a welcome shift in colour. The concert’s standout was the sleek performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1, which demonstrated concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto’s finesse.

While this year’s finale was contained and delivered by a modest instrumental force – perhaps due to the orchestral rehearsals for Wagner’s Ring Cycle involving vast numbers of local musicians – next year’s opening Maestro concert conducted by Clerici kicks off with Mahler 7 and a hefty, sprawling orchestra boosted by tenor horn, guitar, mandolin, two harps and a cowbell. This work was recently performed here by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Music from the Romantic period prevails in 2024 with repertoire by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Sibelius, Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Smetana. The QPAC stage will burst at the seams for a dramatised version of Symphonie Fantastique involving actor Eugene Gilfedder, which requires 91-players to portray the composer’s macabre magnum opus of opium, ghouls and lust.

The 2024 season of 150 performances is ambitious and pursues artistic and geographical adventure. Musically, the innovative warrma pippa project, initiated in partnership with William Barton continues as an open-ended, multi-artform and experimental project striving to promote First Nations storytellers and song-makers.

Topical and contemporary works inspired by climate change and the environment in keeping with Clerici’s underpinning theme of the Outer World includes Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, also a new work by Queenslander Paul Dean dedicated to the Barrier Reef, the ambitious Become Ocean by American composer John Luther Adams and Nigel Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild with superstar oboist Diana Doherty who is from Brisbane originally. 

Geographically, QSO’s newly expanded touring program will encompass Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, Toowoomba and St George as well as the already established host regions of Gladstone, Chinchilla, Miles, Roma, Tara, the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Redlands.

On the musical map, programs journey through Europe with Vignettes, A Morning in France and in Worlds Collide, A Musical Travelogue. 

There’s a healthy balance between purely instrumental works and repertoire championing the voice, and Mozart’s stunning Mass in C Minor with soloists Sara Macliver, Sofia Troncoso, Andrew Goodwin, David Greco and both Brisbane Chamber Choir and St Stephen’s Cathedral Scholars will be a must see.

The Lost Birds, Sublime Vocal Theatrics featuring British vocal ensemble VOCES8 and popular violinist Jack Liebeck looks intriguing and the Puccini Opera Gala will please many. The repeat of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony after an airing in February is a bit baffling, however.

Programming is predictably male-dominated with about 50 male composers and just six females including Lili Boulanger, Ann Cawrse, Helen Grime, Elena Kats-Chernin, Caroline Shaw and Grace Williams.

Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Askenazy, Barbara Hannigan and Umberto Clerici were soloists before they became conductors. Clerici is a celebrated cellist, which explains his rapport with QSO’s strings.

It’s exciting that the concluding Maestro event in 2024 is going to feature Clerici and Yoshimoto as soloists in Brahms’ Double Concerto. After which, Clerici swaps his bow for a baton again to conduct Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

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