Brahms great requiem
Simone Young

Simone Young is one of Australia's greatest musical ambassadors. The Sydney-born leader of the Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra is recognised as one of the finest conductors of her generation

The former Opera Australia artistic director is dripping with international accolades including membership of the Order of Australia, France's Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a Goethe Institute Medal.

On her latest annual pilgrimage to her homeland, the distinguished Australian export is more involved in the import side of the classical music business by leading a Brisbane showcase of the culture of Hamburg, where she has been based since 2006.

For the first time in more than four decades, the German historic port city's top three arts companies, the Hamburg Philharmonic, Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Ballet are touring together internationally to appear exclusively at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre later this month.

The two-week QPAC program includes performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle opera Das Rheingold, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, John Neumeier's celebrated ballet Nijinsky, and The Hamburg Ballet's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"My musicians, as you can imagine, are very hyped," says Young during a side trip to Perth this week. "They arrive the Saturday week before the performance, have a couple of days to recover and then we start rehearsing."

The season is part of a five-year program to bring top international companies exclusively to Brisbane. Paris Opera Ballet and the National Ballet of Cuba have been recent visitors to the city.

"It is a bit of brilliance on the part of the Queensland Government and QPAC because people are coming from all around the country to Brisbane and it really focuses the idea of cultural tourism as a central part of the Queensland identity," Young says.

Beforehand, though, the 51-year-old conductor will make her tenth appearance on the podium with the WA Symphony Orchestra for what she calls "more than a concert" - a performance of Brahms' German Requiem, a towering peak of German Romanticism.

"I am very, very thrilled about this week's program in Perth," she says.

Soprano Emma Matthews, recently seen in WA Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor, and German baritone Albert Dohmen will be the soloists in this 90-minute tapestry of orchestral and choral music.

"The fact that we have got Albert Dohman is such a stroke of luck. Albert was my Wotan in my second Ring Cycle this year in Hamburg. We just did Elektra together in Vienna at the end of June and I was singing Perth's praises, so he is very excited about coming."

Young also has worked with the WA-raised Matthews several times over the past 15 years. "I think she is a marvellous artist with a voice that is full of colours and great beauty."

In length and content, the German Requiem is Brahms's mightiest work.

Inspired by the death of his mother in 1865, when he was 22, it is a deeply moving, profound and powerful piece of 75 minutes duration. "The German Requiem is an immensely satisfying work in that it deals with the themes of death, God, belief and loss in an inordinately comforting way, unlike Verdi's Requiem which leaves one overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy. It's a most human requiem - very few can hear it and not be moved."

Instead of the traditional Latin, Brahms' requiem is sung in German. Its seven movements will be interspersed by the Australian premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's 2001 work Das Lesen der Schrift (The Reading of the Script), which was composed specifically to provide interludes within the requiem.

"It can be quite shocking to the audience and to the musicians because we enter a completely different musical world but it is a world that is very contemplative and full of reflection," Young says.

She likens the effect of Rihm's interludes on the Brahms' to having key moments in your favourite movie interrupted by a minute's silence or a favourite landscape painting drawn in and out of focus so that it can be looked at afresh.

"The music by Rihms takes your focus and concentration to a different place and refreshes your attention so that when the Brahms starts again it is as if someone has turned the lights back on."

Young says she has enjoyed participating in the evolution of the organic orchestral creature that is WASO since her first Perth appearance in 1997.

"It has strengthened enormously," she says. "There has been a big generational change in those years."

Its creativity had been enhanced by the differing styles of successive conductors, the addition of some top soloists and the flexibility of its repertoire that included pit work for the ballet and opera.

"I really enjoy working with symphony orchestras that also play opera because they approach music in a slightly more theatrical way."

Young also claims an ancestral link to WA, where her Croatian-born mother, now 88, spent her childhood before the family moved to Sydney in the 1950s.

Her grandfather ran a hotel in Boulder which was destroyed in the Goldfields anti-foreigner riots of 1934.

"For many years, my parents would come to Perth from Sydney to see my concerts here, so I have a familial affection for the place as well."

The West Australian

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