Dancing in the Cathedral – Mozart and Bruckner from Simone Young and the NZSO

Cathedrals of Sound – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

MOZART – Symphony No.36 in C Major K.425 “Linz”

BRUCKNER – Symphony No.5 in B-flat

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Simone Young (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 17th August, 2012

“A Bruckner Symphony is never just another concert” declared conductor Simone Young, interviewed a few days before her scheduled pair of performances of the Austrian composer’s Fifth Symphony, in Wellington and in Auckland. Not only did she mean that, more especially in this Southern Pacific area of the globe, performances of these symphonies are fewer and further between than in some other parts of the world. It was also an affirmation by a musician who’s already a great interpreter of these works, of their special character, part of which incorporates the power within the music to transform a normal concert experience into something uniquely special and truly memorable. And those qualities were precisely what we got from Bruckner, Simone Young and the NZSO  in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre on Friday night.

For a number of reasons the appearance of Australian-born Young excited considerable interest – women conductors of orchestras are still very much the exception rather than the norm (though we’ve come some distance, I think, from the once-prevailing attitude voiced by former NZSO conductor-in-chief Franz-Paul Decker, who was once famously quoted as finding women conductors “aesthetically unpleasing”!). Young is, moreover, perhaps the most highly-regarded woman conductor in Europe, with a particularly high profile in Germany, working as she does out of the Hamburg State Opera, and as music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic.

She’s something of a controversial figure as well, having been “at odds” with a former employer, Australian Opera, over her budgeting demands during her tenure as the company’s artistic director, resulting in her contract not being renewed after only a couple of seasons. As it turned out Australia’s loss was Europe’s gain, as her dual appointments in Hamburg followed soon after – musical director of both the city’s opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra, posts she took up in 2005. Her native country had, by then moved to make some amends for her peremptory dismissal from the Opera, appointing her a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004.

2012 is an important year for her – besides having made her debut with the NZSO, she is bringing to Brisbane the Hamburg Opera and Ballet and the Philharmonic, performing a concert version of Das Rheingold (she is a seasoned Wagnerian with several Ring Cycles to her credit, including a complete recording) and the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony. New Zealanders who might feel aggrieved that the “Hamburg Invasion” doesn’t include these shores might consider that neither does the venture include Sydney or Melbourne, Queensland wanting “exclusive rights” to the venture – now, why does that have a familiar ring?

With all of these things in mind, expectations were pirouetting on points among the audience awaiting the conductor’s entry to begin the Wellington concert. Diminutive, but authoritative, Young took the podium, and, dispensing with a baton, launched into the concert’s first offering, the Mozart “Linz” Symphony K.425.  Of course, the geographic links with Bruckner (Linz was the latter’s birth-place) made the choice a happy and appropriate one, though there were other possibilities of programming – one being the Fifth Symphony of yet another Austrian composer, Schubert, whom Bruckner is often linked with regarding his symphonic method. I would have been as happy with either.

Thanks to my formative listening experience with the Mozart “Linz” symphony I can’t, even after all these years, get Bruno Walter’s voice on his famous rehearsal recording of this work, out of my head through that opening – “Bahnn – off! Ba-bahnn – off! Ba-bahnn – off! ….” and so on (Walter’s orchestra was having trouble with the note values!). There seemed no such problem, here, the sounds focused, crisp and precise, yet with a warmth (no didactic vibrato-less “authentic” strictures, thank goodness!) and, indeed a glow about the textures throughout the slow introduction, which informed the lovely easeful beginning to the allegro, and made a wonderful contrast with the more bumptious and high-spirited energies to follow.

It was Mozart-playing that reminded me at times of Benjamin Britten’s recordings of some of the symphonies – the same marriage of lyricism and strength, informed by an attention to detail which enriches the music’s context rather than distracts from the flow. Young conducted, it seemed, with every fibre of her being, her fingertips expressing and conveying a kind of whole-body energy which mirrored what the music was doing (as she did later in the evening with the Bruckner), her feet dancing and her knees launching the rest of her body upwards to characterize the “lift” required by the music’s rhythms.

The orchestral playing, though not without some brass “blurps” at two or three cardinal points throughout the slow movement (the players settling in more as the work progressed), produced sounds that seemed an expression of Young’s will, the strings and winds getting a lovely colour, either when “playing out” or with the more softly-lit sequences in the movement’s middle section. As for the bright, vigorous, but still elegant Minuet, Young literally led the opening dance to the audience’s delight, and then got beautifully contrasted characterizations from the winds in the Trio.

The finale again married grace and strength, the players’ articulation clear and crisp at speed, even if Young’s direction slightly “squeezed” the rhythm of the concluding downward arpeggiated figure each time, as if stressing the music’s urgency. Throughout, we enjoyed the prominence accorded the timpani, Laurence Reece encouraged to make the notes tell with just the right amount of emphasis, enhancing both the work’s texture and rhythmic character.

Back from an interval – during which it seemed the conductor’s red shoes (prominent during all those dance steps) were discussed as enthusiastically as her music-making – we settled down to behold the splendors of the Bruckner Symphony. And what splendors they were, in Young’s hands (aided by a baton for this music – doubtless due to a bigger orchestra and music with some rhythmic complexity). The rapt opening of the work recalled Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko’s way with the opening of the “Leningrad” Symphony, almost exactly a year ago in this same hall with the same players – utter concentration upon sounds whose genesis here seemed deeply elemental, like a giant slumberer’s distantly-wrought heartbeat, with those deep pizzicato notes beautifully and sensitively coloured by the upper strings’ arc-lines. What a beginning to a symphony!

During the “Listener” interview previously quoted Young stated that she thought an older school of conductors’ way with Bruckner’s music had contributed to public perception of the works being “overlong”, and that she saw the symphonies as being more direct, theatrical and emotional than they were often played. So, here, the massive brass statements which answered the quiet opening were given with plenty of declamatory force, the playing nicely poised amid pauses for the utmost effect (a magnificent brass response, here, from the orchestra) – and the allegro which followed was swiftly and urgently propelled. Young handled the transitions throughout the numerous changes of tempo in the first movement with the utmost flexibility, moulding the ends of episodes into the silences with beautifully-judged luftpauses. She also seemed ever-ready to allow the music to dance, so that the monumental, cathedral-like aspect of the work was less dominant than is usually the case.

Such was the concentration and energy of the music-making from all concerned that each of the first three movements seemed to be taken on the wing of a single breath. The sometimes problematic opening to the Adagio, with its awkward three-against-two rhythms, here flowed as mellifluously as could be, the music’s innate restlessness perfectly expressed, and the oboe solo’s emotional outpouring simple and direct. The strings’ luscious second-subject theme grew lovely, upward-reaching tendrils of sound, then joined with the brass unforgettably in a snowcapped climactic moment that filled the ensuing silence with magic. And towards the end, with the brass golden and confident, the sound-surges evoked by Young and her players created out of the spaces around us whole mountains and valleys into which the tapestried ambiences etched lonely impulses of wind tones and softly-thrummed silences.

After this came the scherzo, with its outlandish stop-go aspect, and rhythmic sequences alternating between demonic energy and heavy-footed rustic bonhomie, Young and the players (especially the brass) revelling in the quick-fire alternations. If not all of the brass detailing was entirely accurate, what was far more important was capturing the music’s quirkiness and volatility, the textures here in constant and spontaneous effervescence, in places laughter “holding both its sides”, while in others, such as throughout the trio, rustic charm prevailed, the detailing from winds and brass again treasurable (a lovely gurgling upward arpeggio from the clarinet at one point, and beautiful chording from the horns towards the end).

The opening of the finale (a similar hush to that of the symphony’s beginning) was almost spoilt by unfortunate audience coughing – as, earlier in the evening, a flurry of late audience arrivals had interrupted the Mozart Symphony’s slow movement. Fortunately the clarinet’s perky octave jumps (a precursor of the fugue to come) seemed to refocus the attention of the coughers, so that we could all concentrate on the Beethoven-like reintroduction of themes from the symphony’s earlier movements, prior to the fugue’s hugely dramatic first entry-proper. In Young’s hands, as she promised, the music was more lithe and muscular than leviathan-like, making for engaging, closely-worked arguments between voices, and advancing the music’s progress towards a promised climax or sense of fruition.

That came, of course, with those mighty closing brass chorales, which capped off the mountain ranges of music running like a spinal cord through the structures. My first reaction there was to crave a more overtly “grand” manner than Young was directing – she drove the orchestra straight into those mighty statements while keeping the music’s underlying pulse beating, risking a “more of the same” feeling rather than creating an overwhelming sense of arrival and resolution. But what her approach did do was, in the long run, elevate the status of the whole of the finale to that of a truly cosmic dance, the rhythmic drive working hand-in-glove with the “cathedrals of sound” – so that, in the midst of these mighty structures right at the end, we still felt like dancing with the music.

So – it was music-making of one’s dreams from orchestra and conductor, suitably acclaimed by a delighted audience at the end – how long will it be before we can invite Simone Young back again to make more music?





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