Conductor Simone Young Brings High Drama to Britten and Strauss

By Truman C. Wang

simone young.jpg

This 100th season of the LA Phil celebrates new music, 50 new works, and women conductors (we shall call them ‘maestros’ in this male-dominated field.)    Australian Simone Young is something of a Wagner and Strauss opera specialist active in Europe.  To Los Angeles, she brought her keen sense of drama and theatricality to the music of Britten and Strauss.  I attended the Saturday afternoon concert, in the midst of a torrential rain (so much for the ‘L.A. weather’!) 

Inside the hall, another storm was brewing, in Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.  Regardless how one feels about Britten’s homosexuality or pacifist views during World War II, one must not deny the greatness of Peter Grimes, a tragic fisherman anti-hero from the composer’s hometown Aldeburgh.  In her dramatic reading, more agitated and brisk than is the norm, maestro Young conjured up the sea monster in the four interludes; even the moonlight gave no respite to the violent sea waves.   

In a way, Britten’s music of this time (early 1940’s) reflected his personal anti-war predicament (his music was banned by the BBC).  Just as Peter Grimes destroys all that’s good and wholesome, the songs of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings lament the destruction of beauty and innocence and the futility of man’s struggles.  Musically, they are masterpiece miniature tone paintings of famous English poems by Tennyson (“Nocturne”), Blake (“Elegy”), Keats (“Sonnet”) – beautifully realized by tenor Michael Slattery’s nuanced reading and Andrew Bain’s superb virtuoso horn playing (natural horn for the prologue/epilogue and regular horn for the songs). 

Richard Strauss’s Nietzsche-inspired tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, held its own in the second half of the concert.  Its epic scale belies its modest length of 30 minutes.  From the spectacular sunrise that started in the lowest organ pedal (kudos to keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin), to the chamber music of the “Forest Dwellers”, the “Great Yearning”, “Joys and Passions”, and the celebration “Of Science” in a spectacular fugue; the “Dance Song” of ‘Superman’ Zarathustra is a precursor of Baron Och’s waltz in Der Rosenkavalier.  The music ends softly in sunset and midnight after a long day of activities (even Superman needs sleep.)   Most memorably in the “Dance Song”, maestro Young turned the LA Phil into a band of the waltz-king Strauss — a no small achievement.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley..