Verdi's La Traviata.

Aglow … Emma Matthews was in excellent form as Opera Australia's La Traviata took to Sydney Harbour. Photo: Rowena Dennis

In the Sydney Symphony's 80th year, when death-by-deficit prophesies about orchestras were repeated with the insistence of a chord progression by Philip Glass, Sydney's 2012 orchestral culture enjoyed rude good health.

Both the Sydney Symphony and the Australian Chamber Orchestra presented Beethoven's Ninth, that great melding of word and tone. It was a first for the ACO, completing their multi-year cycle of Beethoven symphonies using small forces and period instruments. It was riveting, energised and valiantly faithful to Beethoven's instructions.

The Sydney Symphony season was, in part, a parade of some of the world's finest violinists, starting with Anne-Sophie Mutter's magisterial reading of the Beethoven

Violin Concerto. Then came Lisa Batiashvilli in the Brahms Violin Concerto, Isabelle Faust with exhilarating musicianship in Stravinsky and Julian Rachlin in deeply human Berg. Musica Viva wound up the parade with a rewarding recital by Anthony Marwood.

All three Sydney orchestras caught the theatrical bug. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presented the glittering instrumental excess of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, the ACO joined forces with the Sydney Dance Company for a joyously energised Project Rameau, and the Sydney Symphony entered the pokies debate with Tchaikovsky's gambling opera, The Queen of Spades, under Vladimir Ashkenazy with outstanding singing from Stuart Skelton.

Driven by leader Richard Tognetti's enthusiasm, the ACO presented another of its ''I'd rather be surfing'' events, accompanying footage of West Australian waves with sometimes dubious musical interpolations in The Reef.

Wagner was dispensed by Simone Young in controlled doses pending next year's bicentenary with soprano Christine Brewer in a recreation of the Opera House's opening concert, and also in a welcome visit by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under conductor-elect Andrew Davis.

Opera Australia pushed popularism and sustained quality, while innovation and rejuvenation came from smaller companies with more ideas than money. Opera Australia's excursion on Sydney Harbour with La Traviata provided as good a theatrical experience from a pontoon as one can reasonably expect, with Emma Matthews in excellent form.

The third of Bruce Beresford's refreshing productions for Opera Australia was a cinematic realisation of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt.

After welcome returns of Graeme Murphy's swirling, beautifully choreographed productions of Turandot and Aida, the company ended with a strong new Salome, with Cheryl Barker hinting at a new career in Wagner and Strauss.

Sydney Chamber Opera created deeply questioning, rewarding theatre in Philip Glass and Maxwell Davies. Pinchgut Opera's Castor and Pollux was highly praised.

The year also proved a festival of leading small vocal ensembles, with visits by the Hilliard Ensemble with the ACO, Harry Christopher's The Sixteen in Handel, The King's Singers and Amarcord. These visits enriched but served to highlight local strengths in The Song Company, the Sydney Chamber Choir and Halcyon.

Musica Viva brought back the Takacs Quartet in Janacek and Britten, as well as the brilliant young Trio Dali.

The featured composer program is admirable, but why don't they ever feature a woman? Initially, it was left to the Australia Ensemble to celebrate the centenary of one of the best composers Australia hardly ever had, expatriate Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Then young conductor Jennifer Condon produced a brilliant world premiere recording of Glanville-Hicks's opera Sappho with Deborah Polaski.

Most welcomely, the Opera House continues to expand its promoting role, sponsoring festivals of iconic minimalist Steve Reich and anarchic modernist John Cage. Cameron Carpenter gave an astonishingly virtuosic and balletic Concert Hall organ recital, and the intimate Utzon Room Series introduced thoughtful young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The performance of the year was Mark Gasser's Everest-conquering reading of Ronald Stevenson's encyclopaedic Passacaglia on DSCH.

Sadly, two great American minds left us: the eloquent centenarian modernist Elliott Carter, and a scholar and pianist of rare intellect, Charles Rosen, who shaped a generation's thinking on the classical style.