It was good news that Vladimir Ashkenazy renewed his contract as artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through 2013. 2012 will be his fourth season with the SSO and the orchestra's 80th anniversary. The Maestro will spend four months in Sydney conducting the orchestra himself in the summers at either end of the year, opening in February with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and ending in December with a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's opera Queen of Spades. In his Mahler cycle especially, ending this year, Ashkenazy has shown how he is as excellent an interpreter of symphonies as of piano music, with an attention to detail and rapport with the musicians which brings out their best and an approach to the music which is genuine and strongly felt yet restrained, coming from a deep respect for and empathy with the composer. As a master pianist, he has a natural talent for choosing soloists — especially pianists — not least including 2011 invitees and collaborators Jean Efflam-Bavouzet and Stephen Osborne. As a complement to his good judgement, the Sydney Symphony's expansion into organizer of international soloists' recitals was an excellent idea, giving us concert goers a chance to hear the soloists on their own, after their concerti with Ashkenazy. These recitals brought some wonderful and seldom heard music to Sydney in 2011, though there is some repetition in 2012's programs of certain pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.