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“Let’s talk music”, says Simone Young with obvious relish. We’ve been chatting for a while over a glass of wine in a pleasant bar in Balgowlah – the northern Sydney suburb where Young grew up and where her widowed mother still lives.
When Limelight catches up with her, the acclaimed Australian conductor is back on a fleeting visit to help settle her mum into a new home after a health scare, but has generously agreed to make time for an interview. Given the circumstances, we’ve been discussing our similar experiences to do with aging, ailing parents on the other side of the world.
But Young is flying out first thing the next morning and still has lots to do, so the time has come to cut to the chase and focus on the thing that she is primarily here to discuss – her imminent return to Australia in July to conduct an epic performance of Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalîla-Symphonie for the Australian World Orchestra (AWO) in Melbourne.
While in Australia, she will also conduct concerts for the Queensland, Sydney and the West Australian Symphony Orchestras – the latter, a 20th anniversary celebration of the first time she conducted there.
Simone Young. Photo © Berthold Fabricius
Despite her tight schedule, Young answers expansively, taking questions in her stride about everything from whether the Turangalîla-Symphonie contains some of the sexiest music ever written, to how best to champion contemporary repertoire, to how she feels about becoming a grandmother.
She’s warm, funny and eloquent, her blazing passion for music at the heart of the conversation. Now 56, she is as busy as ever, and has no intention of slowing down if she can help it. A self-confessed workaholic, she willingly admits she’s not very good at relaxing and says that music “is kind of always there” in her mind.
“I do occasionally have down time, but I don’t function well in down time. I’m trying to learn to be better at relaxing, but it’s not a state that comes naturally to me. If I have a down time, chances are I’ll start studying a language [she is fluent in four with a smattering of Russian and Norwegian] or doing logic puzzles or something. I don’t like turning my brain off much. But I’m perfectly capable of becoming lost in an engrossing spy thriller. That’s my real down time,” she says.
Not surprisingly, Young frequently dreams about music. Asked if she has classic nightmares like conducting and not knowing the score, she laughs. “Oh, I used to. I haven’t in a long time. I shouldn’t speak too soon. But my classic nightmare back until 2007 was that I turned up to conduct Tristan and it was actually Parsifal, because I’d never conducted Parsifal, it was the only one of the big ten [Wagner operas] that I’d never done. And then once I’d conducted Parsifal, the dream changed – I was turning up to conduct Parsifal only to find out that I had to sing Kundry,” she says with a big laugh.
“So, I don’t know why that dream’s gone away, because I’ve certainly never stepped on stage and opened my mouth to sing. I have a terrible voice! But yes, I don’t have those kinds of stress dreams anymore.”
She still gets nervous, of course, as everyone does. Going to bed, she often finds herself thinking about the music she is about to conduct. “But it tends to be far more conscious, it’s more likely to keep me awake, and have me going through it. Or I’ll be stuck on a page and thinking, ‘now, what is in that fifth bar on the left-hand side? I can’t quite see it in my head.’ It’ll bother me until I finally get out of bed and look up that bar and go ‘oh right’, and then I’ll go back to bed and put that problem to sleep. But I have other anxiety dreams these day, which are generally to do with family, which, given the circumstances, is fairly normal,” she says.
Young is married with two daughters, now grown-up, and has frequently described her husband Greg Condon, who is a teacher and literary expert, as “a saint” for his extraordinary level of support in taking on many of the family duties in order that she could pursue a demanding international career.
Simone Young 2002 by Bill Henson (b. 1955) 3 type C prints, Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Commissioned with funds from the Farrell Family Foundation and the Basil Bressler Bequest 2002 © Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Her rise to musical stardom began in 1983 when she joined the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) as a répétiteur at age 22 and subsequently became the youngest person and the first woman to be appointed a resident conductor there. These days she conducts at the world’s leading opera houses from Vienna to London to New York. Along the way, she has run several major music organisations. In 2001, she returned to OA as Music Director. She had ambitious plans for the company, which included expanding the size of the orchestra and improving musical standards, but two years into her three-year contract the Board announced that it would not be renewing it, claiming that her vision and programming was not affordable.
When she left OA in 2003, she had already been named General Manager and Music Director of Hamburg State Opera, as well as Music Director of the Philharmonic State Orchestra – dual appointments, normally undertaken by two people, which she took up in 2005. In Hamburg, she oversaw a staff of more than 700 and an annual budget of $97 million. When she departed a decade later in 2015, she left both organisations in better shape financially and artistically.
Young is now “loving” the freedom that comes with a freelance career. “Hamburg was great, and it’s one of those things where I look back on it and think I’ve no idea how I managed to do it, two jobs. I had assembled a very fine team around me – you can only do something like that with a solid team. And let’s face it, I’ve been working inside and outside opera companies since 1982, so that’s 35 years. So, I really knew how the organism functions, which made it possible. I’m very glad I did it – and I’m very glad I’m not doing it anymore,” she says.
It was Alexander Briger, AWO’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, who suggested Turangalîla to Young. The performance in Melbourne will feature around 50 young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in a unique collaboration with the virtuoso Australian musicians returning home from all over the world to play with the AWO.
Simone Young. Photo © Monika Rittershaus
“It’s a work I’ve done many times so it’s one that he knew lay pretty close to my heart. And in terms of the initiative we’re putting in place this year where the students from ANAM are taking part, Turangalîla gives you a lot of scope for that because there’s a lot of solo work, small group work, big group work and big ensemble work,” says Young. “It’s always an event, Turangalîla, so I think it’s a great initiative to get ANAM involved. I try to work with ANAM for at least a week if not two every year simply because I believe in what they’re doing. They’re doing a fantastic job, so I like investing my time in that.”
Young conducted the first concert of the AWO’s inaugural series back in 2011. “That was when Catie [Catherine] Hewgill [cellist with the SSO and AWO] dubbed it ‘AYO with wrinkles’ which we all thought was splendid,” she says with a laugh.
“In the meantime, it’s collected the nickname ‘Grey-Y-O’ apparently, which I think is gorgeous because most of these people are, say, 45 to 60. So, it’s all the generation that knew one other basically at various stages – being students, being at AYO [the Australian Youth Orchestra], being in state orchestras and so on, and then spreading their wings. And so, whenever everybody gets together, it’s a huge homecoming. I know a number of them. It’s a lovely experience, a great atmosphere.”
Messiaen’s 10-movement symphony includes forms derived from Indian classical music along with an erotically charged dose of love and death (Tristan und Isolde was a major influence). The fifth movement, entitled Joie du Sang des Étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars) is considered by some to be one of the sexiest pieces of classical music ever composed. “Boulez was most dismissive of it. [He] said something about it basically being musical porn. But it is incredibly sensual – let’s use that word,” says Young. “It is incredibly sensual, very vibrant. The sixth movement, Jardin du Sommeil d’Amour (Garden of Love’s Sleep) is very Zen. It’s kind of one figure that simply keeps repeating. It’s one of those that’s a nightmare to conduct, a nightmare to count. You sort of go into this wonderful floaty thing, and you think, ‘oh hell, was that five or seven?’ It’s immensely appealing without compromising its musical value, which I love about it.”
Young has always done her bit to champion challenging and contemporary repertoire. Her final production as Music Director of Opera Australia was Alban Berg’s dark opera Lulu. Reflected in a huge onstage mirror, and therefore visible to the audience, the conductor wore a bright red dress for the occasion.
Her final performance with the Hamburg Philharmonic was a barely performed oratorio by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt called The Book with Seven Seals, while her farewell production at Hamburg State Opera was the world premiere of La Bianca Botte (The White Barrel) by Austrian composer Beat Furrer, a work which she had commissioned.
Asked about the challenge of attracting audiences nowadays to contemporary repertoire she says: “I think part of it is always going to be difficult. Everybody’s searching for that key word, phrase, marketing trick that’s going to make it happen. You only have to go back to when Brahms’ First Symphony was first performed, the fact that the Philharmonic Society in Munich received so much hate mail and had subscriptions cancelled and were told if they ever put on a work by this composer again, they were not coming back. Unthinkable to us now.”
“The music of today has always generated strong emotion, both for and against. And it still does, and in some ways that’s good. It’s really then up to the organisations to simply take a stance on how much they’re prepared to invest in that, because it’s all a question of money in the long run. It takes finances to commission the works, they’re more expensive to programme in terms of radio broadcasts because you have to pay different rights, you can’t televise them without paying more expensive rights, they cost money just to play because they’re new, within copyright. They require lots of very intensive rehearsal time and not everybody in the group is always committed to doing it,” she says.
“Though you can no longer call Turangalîla contemporary music, the name Messiaen will frighten a few people. But you only have to listen to five minutes of it to realise that it’s actually no more foreign or distancing to an audience than Leonard Bernstein, of which no one’s frightened. So, it’s all about finding the links for audiences,” argues Young.
“I’ve always tried to encourage artists who are known to audiences for so-called traditional repertoire to venture into the contemporary, so people will say ‘if so and so are doing it, it must be good’. Because if celebrated and successful artists don’t put their weight behind new works, it’s not going to happen.”
Over the course of her career, Young has clocked up numerous ‘firsts’ such as becoming the first woman to conduct at the Vienna and Berlin State Operas and the Vienna Philharmonic. She was also the first woman to conduct a full Ring cycle (in Vienna in 1999). It hasn’t all been easy by any means but Young has always stood her ground in the stilettos she famously wears to conduct.
Simone Young. Photo © Philip Rathner
An oft-told anecdote captures her feisty spirit. In 1997 in Berlin, she conducted Elektra, Strauss’s bloody opera about matricide, when she was eight months pregnant with her second child. At the press conference, she famously said: “I hope this puts a stop to those who say, ‘We can’t hire a woman because she might get pregnant.’ And I’d like to say that my stomach is still smaller than some of my male colleagues.”
With her two daughters now grown up, life is much less of a juggle and all the hard work of those early years has paid off. She clearly loves being a grandmother, even though her work schedule means she can’t be terribly hands-on. Her older daughter Yvann, who is married and expecting her second child in August, has a degree from Oxford University and is now working at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. “She played cricket for Oxford University, when she studied there. She spent eight years in the corporate world with one of the heavy-duty finance companies and then she said, ‘enough of this’ and the Lord’s job came up, and she’s so happy – not to mention how pleased her father is. We’re a family of cricket tragics so that’s most enjoyable,” says Young.
Her younger daughter Lucy is studying music at King’s College London. “Her instruments are harp, violin and piano. She speaks four languages. The world’s her oyster.”
With a view to longevity, Young has always been aware of the need to keep fit but a hamstring injury, which led to a knee injury, has played havoc with her exercise regime over the past 12 months. “It’s about 85 percent healed now but that’s been a real pain, because it’s prevented me from being as fit as I like to be. But, yes, I do work on my fitness, I do watch what I eat and drink, and try to do all those things in moderation. I love swimming. That’s the one good thing about all the travelling, if I’m going to stay in a hotel, I say it must be a hotel that has a pool. Everything else is negotiable but it must have a pool,” she says.
“But if you’re serious about having longevity in the industry you do have to be serious about your health. It is a high stress position, so you have to find ways to combat that. I sleep very poorly, so on days of performances or really important rehearsals, I have really rigid routines about what I eat, where I go, what I drink, who I see, who I talk to – just trying to keep any external stress factors out. And the same with resting on the day of performance. The world has to be coming to an end for me to answer a telephone after two o’clock on the day of a show.”
Simone Young conducting BBC SO at Proms August 31 2016 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Young now has two houses – a converted farmhouse in the English countryside in Sussex and a house on Scotland Island in the north of Sydney but says she feels at home in a number of places. “There was a long time when I felt I didn’t really have a home, when I was very much a gypsy. Now I’m very much at home here [in Australia]. This is very much jeans and T-shirt country,” she says – which is indeed what she’s wearing.
“I’m very much at home in Sussex with my waxed jacket and my rain hat and my wellies. And I’m very much at home in downtown Vienna in my dressy suits and high heels. It’s quite different – you have to be able to enjoy a range of lives. I feel that I am leading an incredibly privileged existence right now. Yes, I work very hard and, yes, I am constantly really exhausted, but I am also intensely grateful for the fact all that hard work has given us really very rewarding and privileged lives that I couldn’t have imagined even 20 years ago.”
“[In April], I was conducting Tristan und Isolde in Munich with some of the world’s finest interpreters of those roles, with a truly sensational orchestra [playing to] packed houses. It doesn’t matter how often you’ve done it, that music gets inside your head and digs around there. It’s musical psychotherapy. And I think, ‘how lucky is that, to have grown up here and to be doing that. Never would I have dreamt that was possible or for it to be such a normal part of my life. It’s not ‘oh my God, I’m conducting Tristan und Isolde in Munich!’ It’s, ‘Friday night is Tristan’. That’s how my life works now. Not that I underestimate how special that is, but I feel immensely fortunate that is a normal part of my life.”
Young agrees that it is a relief to be free of the administrative and fund-raising responsibilities that come with running a big arts organisation. "And not just that, also the political side. You end up being a glorified salesman for what your organisation is trying to do, and sometimes you feel like I'm spending too much time selling what I do, and not doing what I do. And now I'm just enjoying doing it," she says.
So how about running a company again in the future? “Not in that same way [as Hamburg],” she replies categorically. “I might go to be Music Director somewhere – but only if I had a really excellent CEO in place. And that would have to be a very good, symbiotic relationship. I’ve seen so many of those relationships go very, very sour and ugly. But when they work, they’re incredibly powerful. So, that’s the only thing that would appeal to me.”
“And that’s the nice thing about being a conductor,” she adds. “I’m 56, I’m not in any hurry. I’m certainly not looking, but if I don’t stumble across the right combination for another 10 years, it doesn’t matter. I have no intention of stopping – as long as my health holds out – until I’m in my eighties. So, I’ve got lots of time on my side.”
Simone Young conducts Holst and Paganini for Queensland Symphony Orchestra from July 21 – 22; Turangalîla for Australian World Orchestra and ANAM at Arts Centre Melbourne on July 29; Haydn and Brahms for West Australian Symphony Orchestra from August 3 – 5; Bruckner and Beethoven for Sydney Symphony Orchestra from August 17 – 19. She is represented in the Women in Focus exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra by the photographic triptych by Bill Henson in this article.