It was a singular honour that the internationally famous Australian conductor Simone Young chose to perform with the ANAM orchestra in the Academy’s Gala Concert for her only Melbourne concert on this visit.
The conductor’s faith in the musicians was evident when the challenging program was announced. It comprised:
DEAN Viola Concerto
BRAHMS Symphony No.4 in E-minor
Joining the ANAM Musicians for the Concerto was the composer himself. His brother Paul, ANAM ‘s Artistic Director, has previously presented the music of Brett Dean but there was a special sense of “family” about this concert, in which faculty members joined students of various levels in the orchestra.
Simone Young widened this sense of an inclusive classical music community in a heartfelt tribute to composer Peter Sculthorpe whose death had been announced that day. Although struggling with tears when she spoke, Young regained control before raising her baton for Messiaen’s L’Ascension, a work which had suddenly taken on new significance. Whatever the inspiration, all four meditations symphoniques were played from the heart.
The brass section was pivotal to the first of these, Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père (“The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father”). Young was a commanding figure, keeping the pace steady and allowing the slow, reflective music to swell and fill the hall.
The name of the second meditation, Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale (“Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal”), indicated which instruments would be heard. As well as fine clarity from the brass, the winds and upper strings beautifully filled out the harmonic texture as Young’s expressive hands encouraged an almost languorous sound.
The music seemed to anticipate the subject of the next meditation, Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel (“Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven”). However, the trumpet was quite emphatic to begin and a strong brass presence was felt as the entry of other sections made this a musically complex movement. Guided so skilfully by Young, the orchestra played superbly, never more noticeable as in the steady crescendo to a resounding fortissimo.
It was the turn of the strings to create the mood of the final meditation: Prière du Christ montant vers son Père (“Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father”). Young drew a calm, contemplative mood from the orchestra, with the balance of the violins particularly noteworthy. With the idea of “ascension” throughout the work, the sense was that the orchestra had realised the concept as the composer intended.
There would have been no question that the composer’s intentions were clear in the next work, as the ANAM musicians would have rehearsed with its composer (and soloist for this concert), Brett Dean. Although the work was simply called Viola Concerto its three sections had titles that indicated what might be expected. Unexpectedly, however, the first of these, Fragment, had a quiet “other-worldly” sound and a sense of searching that in some ways reflected the Messiaen. Certainly the two works sat comfortably side by side.
In a fine performance some details of Young’s conducting were particularly striking, one being how smoothly the orchestra was brought in after rests. Another was the respect shown to Dean’s at times virtuosic performance. In the long second movement, Pursuit, most of the activity is centred on the soloist and Young was content to stand back until the orchestra joined in and her steady hand was needed to control the pace. The impression, though, was that there was plenty of movement and drama, as Young conducted with her characteristic energy.
Veiled and Mysterious, the final part of the Dean concerto, reflected its name most in its opening subject as the cellos articulated a “mysterious” sound, echoed then by winds, violins and the solo viola. Again the work echoed Messiaen, but in its own way, with exciting development and experimentation with sounds. It proved a test for all concerned, including the conductor, in its rhythm, drama and overall balance. More skilful bowing by Dean led into a sonorous climax, adding harp and brass to the sound before it ended as it began – with mysterious sounds. Like Sculthorpe’s music, this had an Australian sound about it, and it worked well.
And then the Brahms. Simone Young started the Fourth Symphony, with strength and encouraging smiles to the performers, which soon became reassuring nods. How great for the ANAM Musicians to play with such power and confidence. The whole performance was more than professional, it was deeply felt and beautifully executed. Yes, the presence of such a conductor galvanised the orchestra (especially in the third movement, Allegro giocoso) but the work simply rounded off a night of triumph for Young, Dean and the entire ensemble.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed the ANAM Gala Concert on August 8.
The photograph of Simone Young was by Berthold Fabricius.