Many Australian singers and musicians have made names for themselves on the international stage. This was an evening to celebrate five of these remarkable Australian women, all friends, who have enjoyed marvellous careers in music.

Simone Young © Klaus Lefebvre
Simone Young
© Klaus Lefebvre

Leading an all-Strauss concert in the beautiful, acoustically rich Adelaide Town Hall was conductor Simone Young, perhaps best known for her ten years as Music Director and General Manager of the Hamburg Staatsoper, and the first woman to hold that, among many other, lofty positions. The other ‘girls’ were sopranos Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Emma Matthews and mezzos Catherine Carby and Lisa Gasteen (who has graduated from her Wagnerian soprano career). All five are at home in all the major opera houses of the world.

The concert celebrated some of Richard Strauss' well known works and also unwrapped a few of his delightful, yet more obscure offerings. Accomplished as both composer and conductor, Strauss had a significant obsession with the female voice. Young believes he “wrote for the female voice in a way that’s kind of unparalleled for this period of music …. You are never left in doubt for a moment that he doesn’t absolutely adore the women that he’s writing for.” She must have had much fun and discussion in choosing the items for this concert. Strauss’ repertoire is extensive and varied. While symphonic poems were his speciality, he also composed many operas, concertos and Lieder.

Simone Young is a very impressive conductor. Stepping on to the podium, she dramatically launched the program with ‘Happy Ending’, Strauss’ final symphonic interlude from Intermezzo. Immediately in command, her body and arms encouraged the orchestra and the response she elicited was bold and enthusiastic. Five very different orchestral pieces were placed through the program. Also from Intermezzo, the interlude “Dreaming by the Fireside” was gently and persuasively played, restful and calming, smooth, floating and measured, Young’s clear, coaxing, long-armed chironomy giving marvellous guidance to the orchestra. The final orchestral piece in the first half was the remarkable “Moonlight Music” from Capriccio, where the horns were to the fore (Strauss’ father was a horn player), and initially the strings and other winds were soft and the harps played gently. The second half contrasted “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome with the second Waltz Sequence from Rosenkavalier. Under Young’s baton the Adelaide Symphony showed there was no need of a Salome dancing on stage to provoke a sensual atmosphere – it’s all in the music! Then the Rosenkavalier Waltz delivered a bit of light relief. Young danced and swayed to her conducting and the orchestra enjoyed themselves as they played.

The four eagerly anticipated soloists were brilliant. Opening bat were Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Emma Matthews singing sisters Arabella and Zdenka’s duet “Er ist der Richtige nicht für mich” from Arabella, their charming, powerful voices soaring into the hall, blending beautifully with the orchestra. Catherine Carby followed, a strong, rich soprano able to catch the mystery of Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day), a poem that sings to perhaps a dead lover, or perhaps a love affair that has died, or maybe something else, then expressively demonstrated the beauty of her range in “Sein wir wieder gut” (Let’s be good again) from the prologue of Ariadne aux Naxos.

Lisa Gasteen, last seen in Adelaide fifteen years ago where she gained international fame for her amazing Brünnhilde, was eagerly anticipated, and did not disappoint. Her voice, at one with the orchestra, emerged to engage and capture the audience with Strauss’ art song Befreit (Liberated), and then Zueignung (Devotion), two short poems. I felt this was the most engrossing, compelling singing of the evening. No wonder the applause was deafening, and the conductor gave her a great hug before she exited the stage.

Two exquisite excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier concluded the concert. “The Presentation of the Rose” from Catherine Carby and Emma Matthews, as Octavian and Sophie, beautifully complemented and enhanced each other, with Young stretching on tiptoe to conduct this ethereal music. Finally, Miriam Gordon-Stewart joined them for the concluding trio of the opera. Here the silky-smooth soprano of Matthews soared sweetly into the ether.

There is a new dimension to Strauss’ opera songs when sung in concert. They blend more richly into the total sound canvas. We were given an insight into the amazing richness of Strauss’ versatile musical genius, of the full bodied conducting of Simone Young, of the thrilling sound of the Adelaide Symphony, and of the beautiful voices of the four ‘girls’ who sang their hearts out on this, their night together. I expect they had a great catch-up party after the performance that would have extended well into the wee hours of the next day.

*****