The Australian Simone Young is a vastly experienced conductor yet a relatively unknown quantity in America, having spent the bulk of her career in Europe.
Young’s experience and seasoned musicality were thrillingly evident in her Minnesota Orchestra debut at Orchestra Hall Saturday evening.
Half of the program was devoted to French repertoire, not currently a strong point at the orchestra — it has been more than 30 years, for instance, since it has played Debussy’s “Jeux,” which kicked off proceedings after intermission.
“Jeux” is not an easy option if you are looking to put some Debussy in a concert. “La Mer” and the “Nocturnes” are far better known, and “Jeux” is packed with tricksy rhythms and startlingly abrupt shifts of texture.
Young led an incisive, highly authoritative performance, catching the glinting originality of the piece while ensuring precise ensemble in its many curveball moments.
If “Jeux” is relatively unfamiliar, Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” has perhaps been heard on concert platforms once too often.
Yet Young made something fresh of it, finding a deeper vein of poignant melancholy than usual in a work whose surface beauty too easily seduces.
A larger chunk of Ravel ended the concert, the Suite No. 2 from his ballet “Daphnis et Chloé.”
The temptation here is to go for broke — the piece is a tried and trusted showstopper — but Young’s interpretation was alluringly nuanced and built teasingly toward an explosive peroration.
Young’s ability to achieve transparency in thickly layered orchestral writing meant that much more instrumental detail was audible than in the average performance.
Some marvelous solo playing resulted — flute, clarinet and contrabassoon were particularly prominent. But overall it was Young’s sensual shaping of the piece’s 15-minute span and her harnessing of the orchestra’s corporate virtuosity that made this “Daphne” lastingly memorable.
The concert had opened with two works by Mahler, a composer the Minnesota Orchestra has been exploring lately in an ongoing cycle with music director Osmo Vänskä.
Young’s Mahler style contrasted fascinatingly with Vänskä’s in “Blumine,” a movement originally included in the First Symphony but subsequently omitted.
Sacrificing some of Vänskä’s forensic rhythmic precision, Young took a more supple, sensual approach.
Her sharp ear for balances was a major asset in the five songs of Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder,” where the young Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught — a rising star of the international opera circuit — was the soloist.
Erraught is one of those singers who seem to naturally connect with an audience — her warmth of personality and lack of artifice are evident immediately.
She used a wide range of dynamic across the Rückert songs, unleashing a full-blown operatic forte at the conclusion of “Um Mitternacht” while distilling a vulnerable intimacy in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”
Young’s accompaniments were sensitively tailored. In a stylistically wide-ranging concert, she covered all the bases and showed exactly why her European career has been so illustrious.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.