Simone Young is welcomed back to Australia in the same vein as Joan Sutherland once was: local girl made good overseas. The fact that the latter was pretty much beyond her prime when she became more regular in her downhome visits (although still of course a great singer) hardly applies in Young’s case, since conductors can go on conducting, and improving, in a way the physiological demands of singing do not allow. Since leaving Hamburg, Young has made many appearances in Australia, appearing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as well as in Perth, with many and varied programs; and that’s just this year.

Simone Young © Reto Klar
Simone Young
© Reto Klar
Last night’s performance at the Perth Concert Hall made it clear that Young and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra have a particular rapport. The pairing of Holst’s The Planets with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) was a feast of brass and percussion, but displaying also on this occasion great attention to subtle lyrical detail. It makes for an interesting comparison – Planets first played for a private audience in 1918 and publicly premiered in 1920, and Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913. The former, while replete with 20th century features such as dissonances and imaginative colourations, still sounds like it has a foot in the 19th century; it was an immediate success and has continued in popularity ever since. The Rite of Spring, on the other hand, was greeted with an audience riot on it first appearance (whether due to the music or the dance is still debated), but has established itself as a repertory favourite since. It might be said to be a work of uncompromising modernity, although some have argued for traditional Russian sources for some of the themes.

Young’s conducting of both pieces was wonderfully sensitive and committed. Her and the orchestra’s management of the wildly varying dynamics of both pieces was immaculately handled, and the articulation of the different elements of the orchestra and textures was a revelation. The entry of the trumpets in the Jupiter maestoso for instance had a clarity not often heard, without overwhelming anything else. The strings here achieved a full-bodied sound, contrasting with the almost transparent brass. Young seemed to capture the overall architecture of this famous movement, which doesn’t fully resolve itself but plays out in the final presto, which here culminated in an admirably crisp ending. Saturn was portrayed with great delicacy, contrasting with a rollicking Uranus. The fading women’s choir in the last movement, Neptune, was also nicely handled.

All these virtues were displayed even more fully in The Rite of Spring – the distinct textures of the different instruments and sections of the orchestra, the pinpoint unison especially in entries and conclusions and the dynamic balances. Whether there are jazz influences in this work is a moot point, as jazz was emerging in American around the time of its composition; perhaps it can be said that both jazz and Stravinsky experienced similar influences. In any case, the rather “jazzy” inflections of the trombones and trumpets were noticeable in this performance. The overall performance was riveting, but the last part of part one (Danse de la terre) was totally compelling.

There were far too many excellent individual instrumental performances too single any out, with the exception perhaps of Jane Kirchner-Lindner’s limpid bassoon in the second work, and one should mention Alan Smith, the concertmaster on the night. Simone Young herself was a wonder to behold visually, an exceptionally lively conductor. She clearly knows both works inside out, and seemed to be able to focus on each player and section individually. While using a baton most of the time, she occasionally eschewed it for more fluid right hand movements, while always conveying information with the left. During the Uranus section of The Planets she was positively dancing, and in parts of the Rite she appeared to be levitating. This was one of the most exciting concerts seen in Perth, and indeed Australia, for a long time.