1932 was a momentous year for Sydney. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, an engineering miracle of the day was opened in March. In July 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was established, and with it the group of musicians that would become the Sydney Symphony.
The Orchestra consisted of just 24 players, who performed incidental music for radio plays, music for the dinner hour and broadcasts of concert repertoire. The first significant concert event in which the orchestra took centre stage occurred in 1934, when the renowned Irish conductor Sir Hamilton Harty visited Australia which led to calls for the creation of a permanent concert orchestra for Sydney.
A forceful new group of ABC managers increased the size of the Sydney orchestra to 45 players, augmented to 70 for public performances, and inaugurated annual concert seasons in 1936.
Political instability in 1930's Europe saw many leading artists spending large amounts of time in Australia. Fine performances were given under the direction of Antal Dorati and Sir Thomas Beecham. Soloists appearing with the Orchestra included Artur Rubinstein, Bronislaw Huberman and Artur Schnabel.
During the war, despite the near impossibility of buying strings or instruments, the Orchestra was a source of inspiration and solace to enthusiastic servicemen. The number of women in the Orchestra increased to 32 in 1942 from a pre-war total of 20.
At war's end the ABC reached agreement with the Sydney's city council and the NSW State Government to establish an orchestra in Sydney. The new 82-player Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert in January 1946.
One of the prominent guests in that 1946 season was conductor Eugene Goossens.
A world-famous musician and charismatic leader, Goossens agreed to return the following year as the Orchestra's first Chief Conductor. He determined to make the Sydney Symphony "among the six best in the world."
Goossens' introduced outdoor concerts, conducted Australian premieres of major new works as a matter of course, and in 1948 uttered the famous statement: "Sydney must have an Opera House." It was he who chose Bennelong Point as the site for what would become Australia's most famous building.
After Goossens, the next conductor to have his kind of galvanising impact on the players was the Dutchman Willem van Otterloo. An eight-week European tour in 1974 culminated in two concerts in Amsterdam and The Hague that were Otterloo's special home-coming. It was also under Otterloo that the Orchestra made the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall its main performance home.
In 1982 Sir Charles Mackerras became the first Australian to take up the Chief Conductor's post. When he fell ill in 1985, the young Australian conductor Stuart Challender stepped in to conduct some of his performances. These concerts led to his appointment as the Orchestra's Chief Conductor in 1987.
Under Challender, the Symphony's supreme achievements were the ABC Classics disc of Peter Sculthorpe's music, performances of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, the Sydney and Adelaide seasons of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and the 1988 tour of the USA. As his international reputation grew, so his illness increasingly sapped his energies, and he died of AIDS-related causes in 1991.
Edo de Waart's appointment as the Sydney Symphony's Chief Conductor and Artistic Director a short time later has led to a period of greatness for the orchestra marked by many landmark events: the concert performances of Wagner's Das Rheingold, thrilling performances of Mahler's second and third symphonies, a strong commitment to new Australian music and the release of four CDs marking the beginning of a new recording agreement with the ABC Classics label.
In 1995, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, under Edo de Waart's direction, undertook a triumphant concert tour of Great Britain and Europe. Their equally successful two-week tour of Japan and Taiwan took place in November 1996, and included a Tokyo concert performed in the presence of the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan.
A series of initiatives announced by the Federal Government in 1994, including increased player numbers (110), increased touring and recording ventures as well as enhanced orchestral salaries and conditions have seen the Sydney Symphony develop into Australia's flagship orchestra.
The Orchestra's role as Sydney's leading musical organisation continues to develop. From a subscription audience of 500 people in 1936, this year over 350,000 people will attend a Sydney Symphony performance. Over 150 concerts will be given in Sydney and in outer metropolitan and regional centres, including special children's, schools and open rehearsals. This year the annual outdoor concert, Symphony in the Domain, attracted a crowd of 130,000.
Through its ongoing relationship with ABC Classic FM and ABC TV, and its growing list of recordings on ABC Classics, a national and international audience many times larger can experience the Orchestra's performances throughout the year.
As the city's major musical organisation, the Sydney Symphony was the official Cultural Ambassador for the Olympic Arts Festivals and played a pivotal role in the celebrations surrounding the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000, both in the numerous outdoor and cultural events surrounding the Games.
Integral to the Sydney Symphony’s annual program of activity is a strong commitment to music education at all levels. Under the inspiring directorship of Richard Gill, the Education Program reaches all ages and all regions of New South Wales, and has become an envied resource for music education projects in other states and territories. The Sydney Sinfonia is a vital ensemble which performs in education programs for the youngest school children through to the very popular Discovery series for adults, while simultaneously providing training for emerging young musicians who work side-by-side with mentors from the Sydney Symphony, bridging the worlds of the student and the professional orchestral musician.
The Sydney Symphony’s award-winning Education Program is central to the Orchestra’s commitment to the future of live symphonic music, developing audiences and engaging the participation of young people. The Sydney Symphony maintains an active commissioning program promoting the work of Australian composers and from 2005 to 2007 Liza Lim was Composer-in-Residence, with several new works premiered and performed on tour.
Gianluigi Gelmetti was appointed Chief Conductor and Artistic Director in 2004 following a ten-year relationship with the Sydney Symphony as a regular guest conductor. He held the post in tandem with that of Music Director at Rome Opera and brought to the orchestra his strong rapport with French and German repertoire complemented by innovative programming in such programs as the Shock of the New concerts and through performances of contemporary Australian music.
In 2007 the Sydney Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary and the milestone achievements of its distinguished history, first as an ABC symphony orchestra and much more recently as an independent organisation.
The Sydney Symphony has been privileged to work with Vladimir Ashkenazy over many years, initially in piano concerto performances, a few of which were directed from the keyboard. In this, Sydney audiences from those years were privileged to witness some of Ashkenazy’s first work as a director. More recently he has appeared with the orchestra exclusively as a conductor, with audiences eagerly awaiting his composer festival programming each year. With the opening of the 2009 concert season he began his tenure as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor.