ANAM: Simone Young Conducts Brahms

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Published: 22nd August, 2018

It’s always an exhilarating prospect when a youthful orchestra takes on “the repertoire”, especially if you’re in the audience. All sorts of things can happen; it might prove beyond them, they might pull it off, a new star might be born. It can be scary and exciting, both at the same time.

And when you have a world-renowned conductor on the podium, you realise the risks he or she is taking. It’s certainly a courageous undertaking. Thankfully, on this Sunday evening the ANAM Orchestra did pull it off, and we were lucky to have been a part of it! And yes, a star, actually more than one, was born.

So let’s set the scene, or more accurately, the theme. This was not actually a concert of Brahms, since only one of the three works was by him. It would be more correct to say it was about the idea of Brahms, or perhaps Brahms as an inspiration. It was perceptive and meticulous programming, because we heard the full gamut of what it was about Brahms that attracted the musical world.

We began with a contemporary composer, Wolfgang Rihm, a prolific German composer, to my knowledge not well known in Australia. He is currently musical director of the Institute of New Music and Media at the University of Music Karlsruhe and has been composer in residence at the Lucerne Festival and the Salzburg Festival.

Ernster Gesang for orchestra (1996) is inspired by Brahms’ Vier Ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs). It was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra to mark the centenary of the death of Brahms. It takes over individual motifs and harmonic details from various works by Brahms but pays tribute to the great composer chiefly through its “dark and autumnal tone colours.” Rihm says he saw Brahms in a fatherly way and reveals his thoughts about his own father who had died a short time before and whom he began to understand in a new fashion, having recently become a father himself.

The work calls for a small-ish ensemble from the lower, darker end of the orchestral sound spectrum. Brahmsian fragments emerge from and recede back into Rihm’s orchestral palette. The music is mainly quite subdued in tone, and was performed with great dignity.

This was followed by Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (1945). This was, without question, the performance of the evening, and where the afore-mentioned star(s) were born.

In October 1943 the National Theatre in Munich was destroyed in an air-raid. This was the opera house where Strauss had conducted, more than anywhere else, his own and other composers’ operas. He regarded it as the greatest catastrophe of his life. Two years later Dresden was destroyed. In March 1945 the Vienna Opera House was also destroyed. The following day Strauss began work on Metamorphosen, which is the weightiest of his remarkable Indian Summer. (The Four Last Songs were written in this period.) It was described by its subtitle “A Study for 23 Solo String.” There are ten violins, five each of violas and cellos, and three double basses. Each of these players is given individual responsibility, and all but the last player of viola, cello and bass, have moments of solo work. The texture has been described as almost self-defeatingly complex, and every line is significant. The unswerving feeling is tragic. One critic described it as not just a mourning for the passing of German culture, but an expression of the death agony of late Romanticism. It is a work whose form and emotional content demands a search for deep meanings.

It also commands deep respect from the musicians, and maturity. It would be a taxing proposition for a professional ensemble, let alone a young group. It is a tribute to them that players and conductor delivered a mesmeric performance; it was technically brilliant! Simone Young has spent many years working in Germany and clearly understood what was required of this work. Her coaxing and teasing drew out its full meaning and nuances, and the audience collectively drew its breath at the conclusion, before bursting into rapturous applause.

The soloists were Harry Ward (Violin), Mariette Reefman (Viola), Eliza Sdraulig (Cello) and Robert Nicholls (Double Bass). Their contribution cannot be over-estimated, with special praise for Harry Ward who is destined for greater things.

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No 3 in F, op. 90 (1883), after interval, could easily have been an anti-climax, but the full ANAM orchestra paid its respects to the great man in this life-affirming work. It is the shortest of the Brahms symphonies but contains many emotional states and can be quite taxing. Ms Young recognised this at the conclusion of the second movement when she allowed the orchestra extra time to re-gather.

Its full force is displayed in the finale, where assertive, often terse rhythmic ideas content with athletic, long- breathed melodies. After boisterous heroics, the music reaches a state of repose. A bravura performance.

Simone Young has been a strong supporter of ANAM over many years, regularly returning as artist-in-residence to conduct the orchestra at these gala events. “I think it’s a wonderful institution,” she says, “…absolutely fulfilling its role which is to make it possible for elite Australian instrumentalists to complete their training in this country.” Hers is an effervescent presence on the podium, guiding and shepherding the players through the program  and into their future careers.


Reviewer  Cyril Jones attended “Simone Young Conducts Brahms” with the ANAM Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday, August 19, 2018.