Review: QSO – The Great Symphony, QPAC (QLD)

Suzannah Conway

Schubert’s masterful Symphony No.9 was a highlight of a challenging Queensland Symphony Orchestra program.
Review: QSO – The Great Symphony, QPAC (QLD)

Violist Nils Mönkemeyer and conductor Simone Young. Image supplied.

It is always a pleasure to welcome international Australian conductor Simone Young back to Brisbane, where she is a favourite with audiences as well as with the players of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO). This Maestro Series program with Schubert’s final and masterful Symphony No.9, known as the Great Symphony because of its extended length and complexity, included a first half where the viola was highlighted as a solo instrument. This was an unusual occurrence and it was a real pleasure to hear this beautiful instrument given pride of place by the QSO.

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The night opened with the Australian premiere of Notturno inquieto, a short piece composed by Queensland-born violist Brett Dean. Dean composed this work after leaving his position as Principal Violist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as a tribute to his colleagues and Chief Conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Starting quietly with a solo viola, sensitively played by Imants Larsens, the remaining violas soon became prominent in the piece. Perhaps Dean was making a point about the importance of his instrument, rarely used for solo roles. A brooding sonority was achieved throughout the work with rumbling percussion, muted trumpets and brass, leading to the full strings and a melange of woodwind, which culminated in an energised cacophony of orchestral sound. The whisper-still ending of the viola fading to nothingness emulated the opening. Atmospheric and thrilling in turns, it was carefully and precisely conducted and directed by Young.

Bela Bartók’s Viola Concerto is one of the major show pieces for the instrument and in Nils Mönkemeyer, making his QSO debut, we were treated to a masterly and dramatic rendition that was a joy to both watch and hear. The sad lingering notes of the opening few bars by the viola set the tone for an assured yet emotionally intense performance by the soloist. The first Moderato movement demonstrated both the sweetness and richness of this instrument through the many astonishing cadenzas, beautifully realised. The slower second movement, Lento, with its trademark concentration on the sounds of the night, offered some fiendishly difficult rhythmic changes for the soloist who handled it skilfully and with great aplomb. Played at a fierce and furious pace, the Allegro vivace movement, including references to Hungarian folk music in the final rondo, was embraced enthusiastically by Mönkemeyer. After several curtain calls, he returned to play a measured and exquisite baroque partita by Bach, displaying both his proficiency and the subtle colours produced by the instrument.

Schubert’s Symphony No.9 in four movements is a monumental work requiring huge orchestral resources and for a long time was considered too long and too difficult for most orchestras to play or audiences to enjoy. It is exactly the sort of challenge that Simone Young relishes and she was in her element with shaping and managing the demands of this magnificent work.

The stately opening of the Andante movement, with bright horns taking up the recurring theme, gave way to jaunty, vigorous melodies in the orchestra with the dotted rhythms of which Schubert was a master. Maestro Young responded to the classical romanticism of this powerful work by whipping up the intensity and passion of her players, at the same time showing a ruthless attention to detail that brought out the best in each and every orchestral player. Her style and skill made for some exciting rollercoaster rides throughout the work, showing off the brass and woodwind in equal measure. The orchestral colours and complex rhythms of the false starts and crescendos of the slower second movement were exceptionally well handled, Young coaxing her players at every twist and turn. The woodwind excelled in this section with musical optimism and sparkle. The Scherzo, fast and bright, was energetically conducted with Young jumping around the podium with alacrity, while introducing some light and frothy moments into the lively dance rhythms. The finale, Allegro vivace, brought all the huge orchestral sounds together in a frenzied, exhilarating ride to reach an assured and brilliant climax.  

Simone Young was in complete control of the entire evening and it would be hard to think of many other conductors who could have capably managed this range of complex works in one evening. The Schubert showed off her technical mastery, precision, enormous energy and excitement on the podium, with an infectious joy that gave a passionate reading to the work from all involved.

4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆

The Great Symphony
Brett Dean – Notturno inquieto
Bartók – Viola Concerto
Schubert – Symphony No.9 in C (Great C Major)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Simone Young
Viola: Nils Mönkemeyer
20 July 2019
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Tickets $49-$119

About the author

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 10 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.