When Simone Young steps onto the podium she always brings with her a palpable sense of occasion. Following her highly successful 2014 collaboration with students from the Australian National Academy of Music a second Brahms symphony was added to their deeper practical understanding of these mainstays of orchestral repertoire. With Young acting as both mentor and conductor of the cream of Australia’s budding professional musicians, it was clear that her profound musical insight and exceptional powers of communication again inspired them to give of their best.
A diverse program began with Fantasia on a theme of Vaughan Williams by notable Australian composer Paul Stanhope, who joined Young and the orchestra on stage at the conclusion of his work. As the title suggests, the piece pays homage to the famous Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who uses a simple hymn like choral piece for his work. Similarly, Stanhope has Vaughan Williams’ hymn tune Down Ampney as the thematic basis for his work. Lush string tone is a hallmark of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia and also featured in this performance, but the addition of other components of a full orchestral complement, including a large percussion battery, make Stanhope’s work a very different experience.
Winner of the 2004 Toru Takemitsu Composition Prize, it is an arresting composition incorporating a range of dramatic effects that provided ample opportunity for the young players to display their prowess. Structured into six sections of strongly contrasting character, the thematic material is initially taken up by energetic brass then moves to reiterations by woodwinds, strings and percussion. Brass fanfares and serene string passages were followed by furious percussion as Simone Young, feet wide apart in supple balance and long hair bouncing, almost danced the third movement. Then fragments of the theme played by woodwinds at the extremities of their range were transformed into big band jubilation and an explosive climax, whilst bells tolled for the final movement of a gripping performance.
Henri Duparc’s five orchestral settings of his songs plus one of his rare short orchestral pieces, Aux étoiles, made for a decided change of direction and style. Glamorous in festive emerald green, Australia’s popular opera star Emma Matthews added to the sense of gala occasion. Always a supremely expressive and musical singer, responsive to text and musical phrasing alike, she immersed herself in the dreamy nuanced world of Duparc’s Mélodies with Simone Young’s sympathetic support. Matthews rode the long, surging phrases of L’invitation au voyage with technical assurance and produced ravishing pianissimo top notes in Extase. Precision and appropriate bite came from both singer and orchestra for Le manoir de Rosemonde. The final offering was Duparc’s final song, La vie antérieure, which provided a bookend of Baudelaire settings, arguably, the most sublime products of Duparc’s genius. Darker in tone and strongly nostalgic the subdued ending was made all the more poignant by Matthew’s sensitive treatment.
The second half of the program consisted of a vivid account of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Conducting without a score, Simone Young marshalled her forces of current ANAM students, alumni and a sprinkling of Faculty to delineate the musical intention of the piece. A wide of range of colour and dynamic coupled with effective layering of the parts and rhythmic elasticity made for exciting listening. In fact, the full orchestral sound was sometimes so powerful that it became almost overwhelming. The horn section, which begins the symphony and plays such an important role in this work, was generally secure, with Ben Messenger making an impressive contribution as Principal horn. Harry Bennetts was a confident Concertmaster and cello and viola sections also impressed with full, warm tone in their featured passages. The celebratory character of the final movement was very much in keeping with a gala occasion showcasing ANAM’s commitment to excellent music making.
Commitment of a different kind came in the form of an appeal for help. Before the Duparc songs, student representative and percussionist Thea Rossen urged the audience to give generously in support of the UNHCR’s work with refugees fleeing the ravages of war in the Middle East. Not just enthusiastic applause, but instrument cases over-flowing with notes at the end of the concert signaled a genuine appreciation of the efforts of this wonderfully talented bunch of young musicians, who do not live in some elitist ivory tower but are strongly engaged with community on many levels.
Heather Leviston reviewed Simone Young And Brahms Gala Concert, with musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music, at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 18.