★★★★½ A master conducting a master, Simone Young proves she is at the top of her game.

Festival Theatre, Adelaide
July 23, 2016

There is a lot linking Simone Young and Gustav Mahler. Both acclaimed interpreters of Wagner; they each had intensive conducting residencies with the Hamburg State Opera. Both are considered to be among the best conductors of their generations. When Young conducts Mahler she does so with formidable strength and meticulous knowledge of the tradition in which she sits.

Programming an entrée to Mahler’s Symphony No 6 is difficult. The sheer length of the main course restricts the orchestra to something short that will not exhaust either the players or the audience. Opening with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, in this sense, was a safe choice. Young and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra performed this admirably but with reservation: the opening movement began with a brisk and pleasant tempo, never quite reaching the climactic potential of the movement but still sitting pleasantly in its 3/4 time. By contrast the second movement was truly beautiful. In this context it is tempting (but perhaps dismissive) to see the Schubert as a type of ‘baby sixth’, full of emotional highs contrasted with moments of exceptional tenderness.

The orchestra that stepped out onto the stage after interval was an entirely different ensemble, seemingly capable of much greater heights. Nicknamed Tragic, the emotional devastation of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is thorough and complex. It has long been asserted that this work is at least semi-programmatic, or even autobiographical, a story of the spectacular fall of a hero into absolute demise. Structurally it’s a rollercoaster. Beginning with a terrifying march, Mahler uses a traditional form to flit between ecstasy, terror and grief.

Customary differences between themes in the sonata form first movement are exploited by the composer, a challenge well risen to by the ASO. Moments of heavy despair were met with at times humorous interjections from the double basses. The placement of the Scherzo movement in second position ensured that the momentum of the first movement was sustained to its logical conclusion. Ending in darkness, Young took no notice of the threefold jinx of fate that caused Mahler to remove first one then two of his infamous hammer blows, rounding out the spectacular fantasy of the fourth movement with the full set of three.

If the surrounding movements were a cacophony of tragedy, fantasy and war, however, then the third movement, Andante Moderato, gave human context to this madness. In its understated form, it was this movement that was the star of the show. By choosing to place the slow movement third, Young offered the audience a moment of reprieve after a relentless 40-minute onslaught. Both she and the orchestra capitalised on this: Young conducted the first part with her hands as one would a choir, and the orchestra responded with a delicate and heartbreaking love song that definitively laid to rest criticism by Strauss that this work is “overscored”. On the contrary, the resulting timbral blends between woodwinds, horns and violin, made for a sublime palette of colour. Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto’s delicate solo work proved once again why she is celebrated as a master of her craft.

A conductor known for her adventurous taste, Young bears the weight of a 100-piece orchestra on her shoulders admirably. There is confidence in her choices and an exquisite balance of strength and delicacy in her movement. Under Young’s baton the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra lived up to its reputation as one of the country’s best orchestras. Long may she reign.