The Might of Ladies’ Night

August 8, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Conductor Simone Young and soprano Lisa Gasteen played to a sparser-than-deserved SSO audience at last night’s Master Series concert, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The program, rather than the artists, was almost certainly to blame, although it shouldn’t have been. Little known Wagner and unfinished Bruckner is not for everybody it seems, but those that did go were well rewarded.

Simone Young

Simone Young

We think of Wagner as the architect of gigantic operas that changed the genre, but he wrote a considerable body of other music such as the Wesendonck Lieder. These are a group of songs originally for piano and soprano which were later orchestrated by Felix Motti and Wagner himself. If, like me, you love the four last songs of Richard Strauss, the Wesendonck Lieder might also be your cup of tea. Richly orchestrated, they are five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck set to music by Wagner who was having it off with the lady at the time – despite spouses either side being aware of the goings on. Richard apparently needed continual trysts for musical inspiration and these songs certainly reflect his muse.

So much for the music. Now for the singer. Lisa Gasteen is the definitive Wagnerian soprano with unbelievable power and richness. She easily soared above the abridged orchestra, which also demonstrated the artistic chemistry between she and conductor Simone Young. Even if you wanted to duck Bruckner and leave at the interval, admission would have been worth hearing Lisa Gasteen. Like Sydney born Simone Young, we can claim Lisa as a local, since she is Professor of Opera at the Queensland Conservatorium and a revered teacher and mentor.

Before Simone Young appeared on stage for an assault on Buckner’s ninth symphony, change was afoot. Some building works had been going on which placed the orchestra on to three levels – presumably at the request of the conductor. While the violins, violas and cellos were on the ground floor and so was the very busy timpani, the woodwinds occupied the mezzanine while the penthouse was reserved for brass and, surprisingly, the double basses, which were thus separated from their cello siblings. The petite Simone looked up at a veritable wall of musicians. It seemed to suit Bruckner’s music pretty well, especially the super-flatulent bursts from the loftily placed brass, enriched by four hand-down-the-throat horns.

While this orchestral layout offered more depth and less width, it would have baffled a conventional blind conductor.

Simone Young is something of a Bruckner-champion, with praise for her recordings of his other symphonies. It was a welcome change to see a cascade of brown hair and a female figure on the podium. Simone Young was confident in her direction and SSO responded well to her assured reading of a quite demanding score.


Lisa Gasteeen

Lisa Gasteeen

Bruckner’s ninth brings to mind the musical styles of many composers. In it you might be reminded of Wagner with his towering climaxes and brass blasts, of Vaughan Williams in some of his string writing and even Tchaikovsky with runaway romantic passion. But unlike Wagner, a Catholic God rather than people moved Bruckner’s heart. Having completed only three movements of an intended four, and his life nearing its end, Bruckner (1824 – 1896) is quoted as saying “If God does not spare me to complete this symphony, he must take responsibility for its incompleteness”.  God may indeed have got the message because even as a three-movement symphony it runs to over an hour, and another movement might have exhausted even the most devoted listeners. Bruckner apparently penned enough ideas for the fourth movement to guide a few attempts to join the dots, but Simone Young stuck to what was completed by Anton rather than his latter day helpers.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

In the form as played by the SSO, two long movements bookend a shorter middle movement – my least favourite because it is built around a fierce  motif that reminds me of a locomotive ride. Once we reach the station on the other side the music returns to being varied and exciting as it explores the limits of the symphonic sound.

In response to applause at the conclusion, Simone Young pointed in turn to the prominent players in the orchestra for them to stand and take a bow. But by the time she’d finished, virtually every member had stood. That, as much as anything else, tells us that nobody has a quiet night playing Bruckner’s ninth.

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