Sydney is holding its 27th Festival, which is in itself somewhat of a puzzle given that Sydney is a festival.

This year sees a new artistic director, Brett Sheehy, steering a fresh course, with no imported grand opera, indeed no centerpiece at all.

His boast is that the Festival will be the biggest ever, or at least since the Olympic. This boosting of quantity does not detract from the quality of performers from David Byrne to Theatre du Soleil.

Sheehy’s programme is very Sydney-in-summer, bent towards movement and colour rather than text-based performance. The events are targeted at a demographic whose sensibility, though not confined by age or sexual preference, could be niched as Dance Party.

The sole exception to this contemporary temper is the chamber music series at Angel Place. Viewed against the rest of the offerings, one might well wonder why chamber music did not go the way of Monteverdi.

Ten years ago, the Kronos Quartet’s ending its concerts with Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze would have been just right for this year’s mix. Ten years further back and the Arditti’s rendering of Xenaxis would have been in step with the informality of the acts assembled for 2002.

Instead of introducing us to the equivalent newest force in repertoire and performance practice, Sheehy asked the composer and Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival, Michael Berkeley, to curate six concerts between 8th  and 20th January.

As a result, the Sydney Festival is getting a conventional, if youthful, British string quartet - the Belcea - marketed as an “ascendant star”. That they are returning for Musica Viva in March makes it even harder to see why so traditional an ensemble got a gig in this style of Festival.

This month they will perform mainstream pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. This is music to doze off to, a list which would not have excited Pymble in the late 1960s. Even if the Emerson Quartet were performing this selection, to buy a ticket would not be a clear choice above spending the money on any one of a number of companies coming to town.

The empty seats at the five Arditti concerts during the Melbourne Festival last October are one more reminder that not even the world’s finest players of contemporary compositions can draw the crowds. But the relunctance of concert goers to support anything after Bartok is no excuse for dishing up the same old fare to those who are incapable of hearing anything not branded Classical or Romantic.

A Festival is the one occasion when risks should be taken. One Australian work has been commissioned, and three others will be performed. To meet the expectation for something a touch different, Berkeley has programmed three Australian premieres between the Great Names, in the innocent hope that if you sandwich a contemporary work between two war-horses then the subscribers will learn to like what they know they hate. Such contact only annoys.

If we are to get a load of old stuff, why not insert items from Classical era composers we almost never hear live? David Periera could supply the extra cello for a Quintet by Anton Reicha, while Brett Dean could join in one of the quartets where Pleyel called for a viola to replace the second violin.

Another drawcard would be to present the traditional in more demanding ways. A series offering nine of Haydn’s late quarters would advance his claim to be recognised the equal of Mozart or Beethoven. Alternatively, two nights with his quartets in D-major would illumine the ways in which he exploited the brilliance of that key.

With Arriaga doomed to be diminished as the Spanish Mozart, Albrechtsberger could be marketed as Beethoven’s teacher. If a Michael Haydn were programmed as early quartet of his brother’s, how many music lovers would spot the difference - or care, so long as they were never let in on the family joke?