Simone Young

Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Designate talks to Andrew Bukenya

As all Sydney classical music lovers will know by now, the celebrated conductor Simone Young will take up the post of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor in 2022, only the third Australian to have held the Chief Conductor role in the Sydney Symphony’s 90-year history. In her illustrious career, she has conducted a wide repertoire ranging from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Hindemith, Britten and Henze, but is in particular an acknowledged interpreter of the operas of Wagner and Strauss.

Fine Music’s Andrew Bukenya caught up with her shortly after her arrival in San Francisco, in the eighth week of a tour of eight different cities, with eight different programs. Simone was extremely generous with her time, so much so that we decided to split the interview into two, with the second half appearing in February’s issue of Fine Music Magazine.

Your inaugural concert is scheduled for July 2022 in the newly renovated Sydney Opera House, and you’re going to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Hopefully, there are as many people who don’t know this incredible beatific work as people who love it and will fly around the world to hear it. I would love to hear your thoughts about that piece and what it means to you.

Sure. I have conducted the Second Symphony of Mahler a number of times, and I’ve recorded it as well with the Hamburg Philharmonic, which I brought to Australia in 2012 to the Brisbane Festival where we performed Mahler II. So, I have a history with the work, but there’s something poetic about performing a resurrection symphony for the resurrection of a concert hall. I think it’s just such a powerful work that covers a huge range of emotions but also a huge range of orchestral expressions. By that I mean that it goes from one voice and one accompanying instrument in the mezzo solo, at times to full powers, expanded brass, full choir, the biggest expanse, and so in terms of putting a new hall through its paces, it’s perfect. It’s also very moving for an audience because it’s a long build… you’ve got the powerful dramatic first movement, and then the gentler approach to the central movements, and then the final movement just takes over. Mahler says in a letter that he got the idea for the final movement while he was attending a requiem for a colleague in Saint Michael’s church in Hamburg. Another strong connection is that the first time I heard the work live, it was with Stuart Challender conducting SSO in the Sydney Town Hall. I actually have Stuart’s score from that performance…

So, he will be with you…

He will be with me, yes… so I have a real mix of musical, emotional, and personal connections with the work, making it a very natural choice to open the season.

I was once fortunate enough to see you conducting Das klagende Lied, and I would like to ask what it was like conducting a work which is not as often performed as Mahler II. It has a kaleidoscope of colour, of energy, of power like the Resurrection, but it also has something else, a fantasy element…

Yes, and it has a program. It tells a story, which the Resurrection Symphony doesn’t so much. I performed it once before in Hamburg. It’s very difficult to get out of conducting a lot of Mahler and Brahms in Hamburg because they both lived there, and they were both my predecessors in the job. But yes, with Das klagende Lied, I did the three-part version, which is very seldom done – but what I think is so extraordinary is how young he was when he wrote it. Later on, he dismissed the first section deciding he didn’t want it, so it was just the second and third sections which were then always performed. But you miss too much of the establishment of the motifs if you leave out the first section. I always perform it in the three-part version because that was how he originally conceived it. I expect he discarded the first, not through his own wish, but more through other people’s advice and because he was so young… So yes, I’ve done a great deal of Mahler, and I’ve conducted them all a number of times, except the 8th. It’s the only one I haven’t done yet, because I’ve never found the right occasion and the right venue and the right constellation. I will do it sometime, I’m not in any great hurry, but I do intend to do at least one Mahler Symphony every year in my Sydney Symphony time.

Then we have Brahms, and we have Britten, so with that in mind, talk us through what you feel might be some of the highlights that you’re looking forward to conducting.

I’d like to establish some through-lines that we will carry from one season to the next so people will learn to expect that this will happen at this time of the year. For example, closing the year with a concertante opera is going to become a regular feature of the seasons, and I’m very excited about Fidelio. Next year we’ve gathered a really stellar cast, but the problem with Fidelio is always the dialogues. Even the most avid Beethoven specialist and fan must admit that Beethoven dialogues are very clunky…

It wasn’t his strong point…

So what do you do with German dialogues for an English-speaking audience? It’s very weird doing them in English and then singing in German, but if you do them in German with English subtitles, you lose the directness. So we threw out all the dialogues and Tyson Yunkaporta created five passages of prose which I will insert at different points throughout the opera. 


I love collaboration. It’s enriching for the music, because it gives me new impulses, and enriching for the audience because they can put a work that is familiar into a completely new frame or context. So, this idea of collaborating is also going to be something that continues.

That is fantastic…

Opera is extraordinary when you have the whole thing staged, the costumes, the concept, all of that is wonderful… But the works themselves have so much substance that if you communicate them appropriately, you’re effectively inviting the audience to create its own production, to use and expand its imagination, using this music, using what its understanding is of the text to create its own mental pictures. … And I think concertante opera done the right way and communicated the right way can be an incredibly invigorating experience.

I love that you talk about collaboration in that way because we need to do things that invite people in…

Absolutely, and that put works that we know and love into a context as well. There’s a lot of criticism of classical music in the general press – that it’s elitist, a museum, the work of dead old white male Europeans, and what relevance does that have for our times?

And yet, if you contextualise the work with either visual or verbal references that take the work beyond its framework of time and place, and you pull the work down to its core issues, the masterpieces are masterpieces because those core issues are relevant. Have always been relevant, always will be relevant. Fidelio is about triumph through sacrifice and love, so when is that not relevant?

Beethoven’s highest humanistic ideals are still the ideals of most people. That love, sacrifice, doing the right thing, leads to a better life, and that injustice is defeated. It’s a very idealistic opera, a very Utopian opera in the end, but I think that’s a great way to finish the season. Tyson’s texts take reference from the historic background of the work because it was originally based on a supposedly true story, set in the time of the French Revolution, which Beethoven moved to Spain. But Tyson takes the core of the story and places it in different time frames throughout history, so that suddenly one sees the greatness of the work, that it is not just confined to a Spanish prison. It’s about oppression and the search for liberation, and the search for the greater good.

We lost so much of the Beethoven year in 2020 that I was determined to finish my first season with a statement. For me Fidelio is the culmination of Beethoven’s ideals, both musically and from the point of view of his philosophy and ideology. So, we’re doing a retake and rethink on 2020, and I can’t wait until 2022 to do all that.

No, and neither should you. I think great art shouldn’t shy away from Utopian ideals, it should encourage us all to dream and to hopefully come away in a better frame of mind…

Hopefully to come away inspired, and with new ideas, awakened or regenerated… The idea of a concertante opera is going to be a recurring theme at the end of every season for my time with the orchestra, and also the Mahler at the beginning of the season. We’re starting a cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos with Javier Perianes, a wonderful Spanish pianist with whom I’ve worked a great deal. Also, the collaboration with the Belvoir St Theatre is very exciting.

The Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love the fact that your programming is so broad, and that you are leading with collaborative ideas. And then we have the idea of audience choice. Tell me a little about that.

This is something I did in Hamburg, and it was great fun for everybody. The audience in Sydney has been incredibly supportive of the orchestra through the closures, so I was trying to think of a way we could say thank you. We can’t fulfil everybody’s wishes, and we haven’t quite worked out exactly in which format we’re going to do it, but in Hamburg we collaborated with one of the city’s major newspapers with a big double spread listing ten categories, and everybody voted for their top five in each category. The other thing is that although we might drop the odd hint, we will not announce the program until the first concert. It’s great fun for everyone, but the main thing is to offer our audience the chance to say, ‘I’d like to hear that’, and then we can really give some of the ownership of the concert to the audience.

[End of Part 1]