Congratulations on winning Limelight’s 2018 Australian Artist of the Year: Critics’ Choice!
I’m absolutely delighted. It just reinforces that my work is connecting with audiences and that’s very gratifying. We’re vain creatures, artists, we never get tired of being told people like us. I often go a bit out there on programming and this indicates people respond to that so that’s very satisfying.
Simone Young. Photo © Monika Rittershaus
Looking back over your career, would you say that your ethos or principles as an artist have evolved?
I’m constantly striving just to do better work. Probably with the luxury of 30 years’ career behind me, I now have the options to make decisions about where I work and what I do, which is a luxury you don’t have when you’re starting out. And I make quite deliberate choices to go to some of my favourite ensembles, to try somewhere new, to do a certain amount of education work. And I’m in the fortunate position where I can choose to split my year up along those lines and I would say that’s the big difference with having all this experience and three decades of work behind me. Whereas when you’re young you just take the opportunities wherever they present themselves and are grateful for them. But in terms of my ethos towards my work, that’s never changed. I work hard, I study hard, I’m of the belief that I can always do something better, so just a few more hours in. I hope that never changes because I think if it did you’d just be getting a bit blasé about what you’re doing and then that would be time to stop.
You talk about the luxury of choice as an established artist. As a young conductor you have to take every opportunity that comes at you, so is there something to be learnt when you have to put up with the odd dud gig or not the best working conditions?
Absolutely. Very early on when I was in Cologne, I was engaged to do a recording of music I really didn’t like, and that was an important lesson to learn, that doing the work wasn’t enough. It was for a recording which at that stage was quite attractive, but I didn’t feel I was at my best because I just didn’t care about the music I was making and so I don’t think I did a very good job, frankly. That’s an important lesson to learn early on, that you only perform music that you really care passionately about. Again, that’s a luxury but that’s a luxury I’ve been able to enjoy for most of my career, thank goodness.
How did you find a way to work with that music you weren’t particularly enamoured with?
You’re a professional so I treated the work very seriously but I just could not find any personal connection with this particular music, and therefore I didn’t care enough about it I don’t think. And it was still perfectly decent, but I’m not satisfied with perfectly decent. That’s not why I went into the industry. I quite like giving performances that polarise people, that they either really like it or find something strongly against it. The worst thing anyone can say to me is that a performance was quite nice. That’s really damning! [Laughs]
Has that polarising quality always been something you’ve admired in others?
I think it comes down to that concept that there’s no such thing as true beauty without risk. And I’ve always loved the risk takers in music whether it be in choices of repertoire or places you’re working or going against convention. I’ve just always felt that by risking something, even if it’s something of yourself, you’re creating more opportunities for great beauty.
As an established artist who clearly values hard work, have you been able to find a way to work smarter and most efficiently?
Yes. I don’t think I ever actively sought it but I think that’s one of the huge advantages of the kind of intensity of career that I’ve had. I never go easy on myself. If anything, I possibly always take on one project too many. But of course as you build a fairly huge repertoire, you’re building your vocabulary of the particular works and of the composers so it takes me far less time now to learn an unfamiliar Verdi opera than it would have 20 years ago because in those intervening 20 years, I’ve probably done 20 operas. So you learn the vocabulary of how the work functions even before you tackle the work, and it’s the same with symphonic repertoire. The first time you do a Mahler symphony you feel like you’re climbing Everest. Each Mahler symphony is extraordinary and brings its own very special demands and challenges but the development of the composer’s thoughts, the way he handles certain material, what he means with certain phrase expressions, these all become part of your working vocabulary which means you do learn more efficiently perhaps. That brings its own advantage because it gives you more time, you’re freed from time that you devote to the technical aspects of the work to think far more deeply about the psychological aspects of the work, the impact, the influences. And that just makes the work constantly more satisfying and brings its own challenges so I think it’s an extraordinary field to be in because you can spend a lifetime learning.
You’ve always split your time quite evenly between the opera house and the concert hall. How have they complemented each other throughout your career?
On a purely musical base, they do so fabulously. I don’t think you can really begin to understand the opera Fidelio musically until you’ve done the Ninth Symphony but that works vice versa as well. Doing Strauss tone poems without having done Frau ohne Schatten or Rosenkavalier seems to me a fairly perverse way to go about it. But also having a repertoire of the tone poems informs the way you approach some of the opera. In principle, composers who were pianists and were composers of songs, you find the roots of their compositional thought is in their piano and vocal music. The same goes for composers at whose core was chamber music. You find the keys to their symphonies in their string quartets and trios. So constantly studying, if you like, complementary repertoire is immensely satisfying and brings with it new insights. You learn about Bruckner from conducting Wagner, and you learn about Alban Berg from conducting Berg and Richard Strauss. You learn about Boulez by conducting Messiaen. It’s an ongoing process and that’s why I believe it’s very important to maintain a presence in both repertoires. And also I think when you start in opera when I did, you can never leave it behind. There’s always going to be a part of you that’s just keen for that almost impossible synergy of voice and orchestra and staging and visuals that makes for the perfect opera evening. If you manage to hit it two or three times in a year you’re doing pretty well but the search for that perfect synthesis is completely addictive.
What’s exciting you right now as an artist?
At the moment I’m going through quite an interesting phase of not really being attached anywhere for a significant amount of time, so I am travelling fairly constantly, which brings its own challenges but also, quite honestly, a lot of pleasure. The big challenges in front of me in the coming seasons are some big concert debuts with Los Angeles Philharmonic at the end of January, San Francisco Symphony in April, Chicago Symphony in June. Returning to the New York Phil and the Met after an absence of more than 20 years. All these sorts of things that weren’t possible while I was in charge of the opera and Philharmonic in Hamburg because between my responsibilities in Hamburg and my familial responsibilities in Australia, America was ruled out for me for a number of years and now that is reopening. And that’s very exciting, they’re some of the best symphony orchestras in the world and I’m really looking forward to developing that relationship.
And also in terms of repertoire I guess I’m sort of working on three different levels. One as I continue my commitment to contemporary music and I always make sure a chunk of my repertoire in any given year is by living composers because they need the support. You go back to Klemperer’s time and it was just matter of fact thing. The other thing is now having done so much Mahler and Brahms and Bruckner and Schumann, all the big German Romantic repertoire over the last 20 years, is also now revisiting that repertoire, finding how I feel about that now at my age rather than 15, 20 years younger. What my life experience brings to my interpretation of those particular works, how do those works remain relevant to today’s audience? So that’s something that occupies me and I guess on the third level I am kind of expanding, but in small doses, my commitment to pedagogic projects. Those are three branches of where my professional engagements are focused at the moment.
And of course I’m greatly looking forward to the developed relationship with Sydney Symphony that’s coming up in the next couple of years where we’re doing a greater number of weeks as guest conductor and a program of repertoire that all connects into my Viennese experiences. I’ve just celebrated 25 years conducting in Vienna so that feels like a very nice development of the last 25 years if you like.