There was more than the Olympic Games to provide the thrills on Friday night. Two of our international megastars were also in action with some of the cream of Australia’s musical talent, exciting the crowd to standing ovations in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Deserving any number of gold medals, *Maestro Simone Young mounted a different kind of podium sporting her trademark stiletto heels and chestnut mane to show us how it’s done.
Baton-less, she inspired the strings of the Australian National Academy of Music to a sensitive and passionate reading of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Originally written for string septet in 1899, his one movement tone poem of remorse, forgiveness and transfiguration was reworked for string orchestra in 1917 and 1943, years that happen to coincide with World War I and World War II. Despite the chromaticism, the 1943 version performed on this occasion seemed so accessible and lushly romantic in nature that it was difficult to believe it came from a composer so closely associated with 12-tone music. From the magic of the hushed opening passages to the surging climaxes of hand-wringing despair and final rapture, Simone Young’s clear, flexible direction elicited well-shaped, committed playing featuring admirable dynamic range and depth of tone. The passages for the basic septet of two violins, two violas and two cellos were particularly noteworthy, with Nicholas Waters and Martin Alexander making a fine contribution on principal violin and principal viola respectively.
Another arrangement by Schoenberg bookended the program with his orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, transfigured into what Schoenberg justifiably referred to as “Brahms’ Fifth”. Considering the success of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony for the 2014 Simone Young Gala concert with ANAM, this choice seemed a logical progression. It is also an uplifting work that provides an ideal showcase for the performers’ talents, even though the pianists are given the cold shoulder. Schoenberg’s words quoted in the program provide an explanation “… the better the pianist the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings (violin, viola cello). I wanted for once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” One could add: by excluding the piano. In the event, it was not only the ANAM strings, augmented by a few alumni, guests, and faculty that could be heard. There was also some terrific work from the winds, brass and percussion. With Harry Bennetts an assured concertmaster, Simone Young, this time with baton in hand, drove and moulded her charges to perform with all the expressive musicality they could muster. Interspersed with colourful episodes from various sections of the orchestra, the exuberant outpouring of fast and furious Hungarian dance in the final movement was so energising that the audience could hardly wait to explode into celebratory applause and cheering. It was like being at some wild party. Once again, the audience response to an ANAM concert rivaled the raucous enthusiasm of a sporting event and made you wonder about comparative government expenditure on sport and the arts.
Between these two instrumental joys came a third: the incomparable diva Lisa Gasteen with Mahler’s five Rückert-Lieder. Changing the order printed in the program, she began with Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty’s sake) and ended with one of the most beautiful and affecting songs ever written: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world). Although the latter was not orchestrated by Mahler, Max Puttmann has respected this gem with a sympathetic understanding of Mahler’s style and sensibility. With some lovely playing by David Reichelt (cor anglais), Owen Jackson (oboe) and Samantha Ramirez (harp), it was the perfect conclusion to a collection of songs that encompass a range of diverse moods and instrumentation. They also allowed Gasteen to express her indisputable artistry in a voice that is gloriously distinctive and addictive in its concentrated allure. The rapport between singer, conductor and orchestra made for a most memorable collaboration with the languorous closing phrases creating an exquisitely moving sense of timelessness.
This was a festival of music that more than lived up to its title of Gala Concert.
* Editor’s note: Extensive checking suggests that “Maestro” is a term of respect for distinguished conductors like Simone Young, whatever their gender.