Climate change, fake news, wars near and far, anxiety, illness, a slowing economy: they occupy our minds and lay siege to our spirits. No wonder we return time and again to Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7, begun in a Leningrad (St Petersburg) besieged by German forces and given its first performance in that still-threatened city in 1942 by a defiant orchestra comprising civilians and soldiers.
This unforgettable concert featured the combined forces of WASO and nearly 30 young music students from the Australian National Academy of Music. Maestro Simone Young, surely one of the most thrilling conductors of our troubled times, marshalled her troops before leading an assault on Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 – dividing to conquer by having first devised her own suite of movements from this attractive ballet score.
Whether in the Act 1 Introduction, the famous Dance of the Knights, the Finale to Act 2 or Juliet’s Death and Funeral, Young accentuated Prokofiev’s unerring sense of theatre, as much as his extraordinary orchestration and deceptively original melodies, with bold, balletic gestures. The orchestra responded with a steely, visceral sound: clean and sharp as a newly-forged blade.
Following the interval, Young unveiled a cinematic vision of desolation and despair; of hope and triumph. A solitary woodwind or violin wandering through deserted streets, the carcasses of shattered buildings rising out of the gloom. A brass choir howling hymns to an uncaring moon. Crowds of strings harried by bursts of percussion… it was all here, and more.
As the Allegretto’s classical sonata-form structure was momentarily interrupted, seemingly fleeing in horror from the encroaching Kriegsmaschine, Young elicited from her charges young and old the utmost discipline, the (in)famous march moving from triple pianissimo to fortissimo with the inexorable precision of a heartless enemy.
As for the following Scherzo and Adagio, Young imbued both with a strangely nightmarish quality, fugal and soloistic elements alike flitting across a sometimes pretty, sometimes jagged, harmonic landscape like harried lovers, before a final push, in the Allegro non troppo, up into inhospitable peaks, where despite a major-key ending, neither sadness nor solace find purchase: only a profound existential terror.