Simone Young’s Global Ascent Up Conducting Ranks

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Simone Young is enjoying a debut-filled return after being away from the U.S. for close to 20 years. (Photo © Kasskara)

INTERVIEW – Simone Young, recently appointed as the next chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra starting in 2022, has been a trailblazer throughout her 34-year conducting career. She was the first woman to conduct the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. She was the first woman to conduct the Paris Opera and the first to record Wagner’s Ring.

Since last season, Young has worked extensively in the U.S. for the first time in decades. [In January she introduced Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and is currently putting forward Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic – both with soloist Alban Gerhardt.]

The world premieres of two cello concertos mark early 2020 concerts in Cincinnati and NYC.(Klaus Lefebre)

In November, I caught up with Young prior to a San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Act One of Wagner’s Die Walküre and Strauss’s Metamorphosen. I then followed her to Australia, where, in December, she conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied. These are excerpts from that conversation.

About her absence from the U.S. after a series of promising engagements at the Metropolitan Opera in 1996-98: “Soon after those engagements I took on Opera Australia, and then I had a lot of work in Europe, and that limited my availability almost anywhere else. Once I left Australia, I took on the Hamburg State Opera and the Hamburg Philharmonic, and I was CEO there as well as music and artistic director, so that was an around-the-clock job. I did virtually no guest work except Australia. So I’ve been away from America for close on 20 years. And I’m very much enjoying now returning, and last season making a whole host of debuts. I’m just having a wonderful time. Last season, I went to Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and here to San Francisco. And I returned to the New York Phil for the first time in 20 years when Jaap [van Zweden] was injured.”

Powerful influences: “I’m an autodidact when it comes to conducting. I studied to become a composer, a pianist, and a flautist. I joined the opera company in Sydney as a pianist and répétiteur, and started conducting. And I had already conducted a lot in Cologne, when James Conlon, who was my boss in Cologne, introduced me to Daniel Barenboim. Tony Pappano had just got the job in Oslo, and Danny needed a pianist in Bayreuth that summer to play – I think it was Rheingold and Walküre. I was a fan of Barenboim as a pianist from the time I was a child growing up with the piano. And he actually spent a good bit of time in Australia touring as a pianist and as a conductor when I was very young. So those radio broadcasts were some of my earliest musical experiences. But what I learned from Daniel was this wonderful … not so much how he conducted certain phrases, but why. And his unceasing questioning of the material, constantly trying to get behind the notes on the paper: inside the text. And this inspired me – I’m a real workaholic anyway, and a real nerd when it comes to chasing research and resources and looking at old parts, trying to learn as much as I can from the materials we have available to us.

Young assisted Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth in the late ’80s. (Wiki Commons)

“As a young musician, Daniel had known all the great postwar conductors, and there was a sense of the generational thing in Bayreuth. There was the Furtwängler tradition, and there were the Kempe and Keilberth traditions, and Daniel was developing beyond this, and asking questions. Also, it was Bayreuth. The first time I heard the sound from that pit was back in ’86 when I had some Wagner Society money and an introduction to attend some performances. And that was revelatory, because my whole experience of Wagner up to that point had been either concertized or in a reduced orchestration in the Sydney Opera House, which is woefully inadequate. Not the musicians: excellent orchestra; appalling acoustic environment. To hear the greatest Wagner singers and great musicians in the pit, and to be in and out of that pit all the time was just a tremendous experience.

“I spent four summers there at Bayreuth. First on the last couple of years of the Kupfer/Barenboim Ring, and then preparing, training, and rehearsing the singers for Daniel’s Tristan. In the meantime, he’d invited me to become a resident conductor at the opera house in Berlin, where I was slowly and happily working my way through the entire Wagner canon. So by the time I was 38, I had conducted nine of the “big ten,” including four Ring Cycles in Vienna and Berlin and numerous Tristans. The wonderful thing about this repertoire is that one opera gives you information on the next, which then reflects back on the first, and you’re constantly learning and taking musical information from one piece to the next. And this starts to infuse your concert repertoire: your Brahms, your Bruckner. Bruckner and Wagner – you cannot separate them. Without being deeply in Wagner, you can’t start to conduct Bruckner, and Bruckner is my other big passion.”

Young: ‘Bruckner and Wagner – you cannot separate them.’

About being pigeonholed as a specialist: “Well, the reason I went so heavily down that path was, in fact, to avoid being pigeonholed. When you’re a young conductor in an opera house, you tend to get L’elisir d’amore, you get Magic Flute, you might get a matinee of Traviata, and you’ll get a Boheme eventually. Fabulous music, and I loved doing all that stuff. But then, for a little while, it looked like that was where it was going to stop. And my musical language comes from the keyboard, and it comes out of the spoken language. I speak German fluently, I played lieder, I played all the Schumann, the Brahms, the Schubert, Beethoven lieder, Mozart songs, Brahms of course. And all these composers…their symphonic repertoire starts in their lieder and chamber music. For me that was a natural development to go down that path. It’s interesting, I guess, because the Wagner is always pretty high profile, and ditto Richard Strauss, that’s what everybody sees me doing. But a week and a half ago I did an all-Slavic program in Manchester. I do a huge amount of Janáček. I just spent two months in Vienna doing Midsummer Night’s Dream. Next year, I’m doing a lot of French music. I’ve been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres for my services to French music. And I love contemporary music because my background is composing.”

About American composers: “It’s funny, because the contemporary music world tends to be isolated within its own nations. There are only a handful of composers of my generation today (I’m 58, so 50-70) who have crossed their borders. I think that’s a big problem, and I love introducing…I’ve done Kurtág in Australia, and Henze in Australia. As far as American composers go…I guess, I know the earlier generation. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of minimalist music, so I tend to steer away from that world. And I do like a certain amount of complexity in music: I like the music to give me a mental challenge. So that rules out a certain other school of composition. That said, there are some great composers working in this country today. It’s one of the things I look forward to in the coming years: developing stronger relationships with orchestras here, and getting to know more of the work of the ’60 and younger’ generation and particularly the ’40 and younger’ generation, because I think there’s some important work going on.”

Young is keen to look at works by composers 40 and younger. (© Berthold Fabricius)

About starting out as a conductor: “I was very lucky because I started in Sydney, where when somebody gets sick you can’t just fly someone else in from a neighboring city: they’re not gonna get there. So I got my first chance on the main stage of the Sydney Opera House when a colleague fell ill and I was called in at two o’clock to conduct that night. Great! That wouldn’t have happened had I been the 24-year-old répétiteur in Cologne. They would have got someone to come down from Düsseldorf or Frankfurt. So just the geographic isolation of Australia already put me in a position where I was given opportunities at a very young age that I would not have got anywhere else. There’s also my composition background. In those days I was the only girl on the composition faculty – no other staff and no female students. But it took me about 18 months to notice that, because we were just students together and you don’t notice these things if you’re focused on the work. And for me, it has always been about the work. About the music. You can probably criticize me for a great many things. But the one thing you cannot criticize me for is not being serious about the music.

“And in the end, all an orchestra wants is to have someone in front of them who is going to help them do something interesting with the music at hand. That’s basically the task of a young conductor. It’s the freakiest thing. When you’re 25 or 26, starting out, if you’re a pianist, your piano doesn’t talk back. Every key doesn’t have a different personality. You don’t have to deal with this part of the keyboard differently because that’s the brass boys and they’re hard to work with, or the double-basses are a meaty section, or there are some weaknesses in the violins you’ve got to work through. Your instrument does what you want it to do. As a young conductor, your instrument is the orchestra. But there’s probably collectively so much more experience there than you yourself have. On the one hand, you have to be decisive about what you want to do, but you also have to work in a collaborative fashion. They’re going to have input that you will profit from. So the gender thing was never really an issue for me. I’ve found it funny, rather than anything else, that people would make comments about it. Because to me it was pretty incidental.”

Katharina Wagner has announced that a woman will be conducting at Bayreuth in 2021: “I can tell you it’s not me. In the summer of 2021, I have engagements in Australia. I’m quite glad it’s not me. I’ve collected enough firsts; let somebody else have a few.”

Young jumped in for injured Jaap van Zweden at the NYPhil in 2019. (Facebook)

Why there are so few women on the podium today: “Well, it’s changing. And it’s changing for the very reason that the orchestras are changing. If you look at photographs of American orchestras from the 1980s and from today, there’s a huge difference in terms of both gender and racial demographics. Not enough, but it’s changing. And that’s the same right across Europe, and in Australia. And if there are simply more young women studying and more young women in the orchestras, there’s going to be a bigger pool out of which young women can rise to the podium. I think at the moment we’re almost in a slightly dangerous situation where it’s sort of a la mode, and there are some very talented young women out there, and I fear for them because they’re being hyped beyond belief and pushed to doing stuff that they might not be yet equipped for. But that’s also because the profession is always after the latest new thing, the latest young thing, somebody new. I hope there are good people advising these young conductors to select their repertoire, select their working environment according to where they are in their development.”

About the future: “What I’ve found in the last 4 years is I’m establishing new relationships with certain places that feel like there’s going to be a longevity of the relationship. We might only see one another every couple of years, but you build on that kind of relationship. I’ve now been at the Vienna State Opera every year for 25 years; Munich; Berlin; Zurich. Paris is about to come back into the fold for my schedule. I feel incredibly privileged. I’m doing work I love, and only work I love. I’m in the wonderful situation where if I don’t want to conduct something, I don’t. That’s a joy. There would have to be a compelling reason for me to take on a chief position. I’m not ruling it out, but maybe it would be a symphony orchestra, or even two symphony orchestras, because you know a chief’s job is 8-10 weeks, so two is perfectly feasible.”

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in Atlanta, where he works as a development officer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.