The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has named pre-eminent Australian conductor Simone Young as its new Chief Conductor. She will take up the position at the start of 2022 when the orchestra returns to its home at the Sydney Opera House following the two-year closure of the Concert Hall for a major upgrade, including an acoustic refurbishment. In 2021, she will be the orchestra’s Chief Conductor Designate as she puts the 2022 program in place.

Young – who was voted Australian Artist of the Year by Limelight‘s critics in 2018 – will be the SSO’s 13th Chief Conductor, the third Australian to hold the title following Sir Charles Mackerras (1982 – 1985) and Stuart Challender (1987 – 1991), and the first woman.

Simone Young. Photograph © Nic Walker, stylist Virginia Van Heythuysen, hair and makeup by Desiree Wise, courtesy of Sydney Symphony Orchestra

She first conducted the SSO in 1996. “In those 25 years I’ve seen the orchestra go from being very good to being a truly great orchestra today,” she tells Limelight. “This is a fantastic world orchestra, and we just have a very empathetic response to one another that has really developed and intensified over the last few years. I am working with the great orchestras of the world and I’m very proud to put my name to being Chief Conductor of this one. I think it is an extraordinary group of musicians in an extraordinarily beautiful city.”

A commanding presence on the podium, Young conducts the leading orchestras in Europe and the US, and at the world’s top opera houses. Hugely popular with Australian audiences, she has apparently been offered positions by other Australian organisations in recent years, but has knocked them back in order to focus on a freelance career. In an interview with Limelight in 2017, she said she might eventually consider taking on another role as Music Director or Chief Conductor – “but only if I had an excellent CEO in place”.

In 2019, she accepted the position of  Guest Conductor at the SSO alongside Donald Runnicles as Principal Guest Conductor, and Vladimir Ashkenazy as Conductor Laureate – a formidable team to help guide the orchestra for three years, including David Robertson’s final year as Chief Conductor, while the management undertook an extensive international search to find his successor.

Speaking to Limelight about her decision to accept the position of Chief Conductor, Young says: “It’s a congruence of lots of factors. I’m a Sydney girl, this is where I grew up. It still is my favourite city in the world. I love this orchestra, I studied with many of them, I’ve been conducting this orchestra for 25 years, we have a long and very happy relationship. We already had in place the plans for the next two years of me being here for three weeks next year and four weeks the year after, and it was a kind of a development of those discussions that made us all feel that the time is right. I think the appointment of Emma Dunch as the CEO is really significant and very positive for the organisation, and I believe we can be a team that can work together very well in the interests of the orchestra and the city.”

Young’s contract is initially for three years and will see her conducting the orchestra for eight weeks each year. “Home base will stay in Europe but, of course, it will afford me the chance to spend a lot more time in Sydney, and we will divide those weeks up into three trips to Australia. These days, with the communication that is possible and available, there will be constant communication between myself and the administration, and the artistic planning as well. It’s an ongoing thing that’s already started and that we will now continue and intensify,” she says.

After studying piano and composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Young began her career at age 22 when she joined the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) in 1982 as a répétiteur and then resident conductor, making her conducting debut at the Sydney Opera House in 1985. In 1987, she went to the Cologne Opera where she became a Kapellmeister two years later, assisting James Conlon. She then assisted Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera and the Bayreuth Festival. From 1992, she made important debuts in quick succession, becoming the first woman to conduct at several opera houses including Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille and the Wiener Staatsoper. In 2001, she returned to OA as Music Director. She had ambitious plans for the company, 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.

She made her debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005, and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007. In 2005, she took on the dual appointments of General Manager and Music Director of Hamburg State Opera, and Music Director of the Philharmonic State Orchestra, normally undertaken by two people. When she departed a decade later in 2015, she left both organisations in better shape financially and artistically. She then embarked on a high-flying freelance career. Over the years, she has conducted several complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Vienna State Opera (1999, 2001, 2005), Berlin State Opera (2001) and Hamburg State Opera (2011, 2012, 2013). Since 2012 she has made annual guest appearances with Australia’s major symphony orchestras, and has been a member of the guest faculty at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in Melbourne since 2014. She is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Switzerland.

Simone Young conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in August 2019. Photograph © Jay Patel

As for her plans as Chief Conductor of the SSO, she says: “I think that 2022 is going to mark the beginning of a very interesting time for the orchestra with the refurbishment of the [Concert] Hall and the orchestra returning to its home after a two-year closure. A hall is part of the instrument. The orchestra is part of the hall, and when that hall is acoustically dramatically improved that is going to have a massive positive knock-on for the orchestra, which means that the hall will respond as a different instrument. And that’s very exciting for us, and so we are planning and thinking about programming – it’s all a little early, but we are already planning things that are going to investigate and challenge the orchestra in its new space, so it’s very exciting,” she says.

She laughs when asked if she consults the musicians when planning a program. “It’s very funny. You can always trust the brass boys not to hold back, and I’ve already had a few of them come up with their wishes for what pieces they want to do. Yes, of course there is always some feedback with the orchestra, and there are two members of the orchestra on the board, and there is a players committee, and so there is always constant to-ing and fro-ing. And they know me, they know the repertoire that I love – and we love performing it together. The last few years have seen us do a lot more of the German late Romantic repertoire and it seems to suit us really well so it will be no surprise that I will want to continue with that relationship in that repertoire. But the world of symphonic music is so extraordinarily multi-faceted and varied that there are so many other areas that we can explore together as well.”

Known for her work with living composers, she also wants to present “the work of great, modern artists of the world” and says she want “to bring great Australian artists home to Sydney as well. This is a great world orchestra and we want to have a program that reflects that as well.”

In his annual look at Australia’s state orchestras and the amount of Australian content scheduled, Ian Whitney found that in 2020, the SSO is at the bottom of the pile with only 1.6 percent of Australian repertoire, and no works by female composers.

Young admits that while she knows the music of Australian composers of her generation and older, she doesn’t know a great many Australian composers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s and is ready to embrace that learning curve.

As for programming female composers: “I know it’s a current hot topic, if you like. My bench mark is I am always interested in doing the work of good composers irrespective of gender, and certainly the last 100 years has seen far more women coming to the industry and that is to be explored, developed, encouraged and performed. But I don’t see my work as a political platform in the gender area, specifically. I think frankly the fact that I am standing there doing it says everything that we need to say about gender in the industry,” she adds with a smile. “But there are some very fine Australian composers of the older generation long ignored, and of the younger generation starting to come through, and I will be looking to examine all of this and choose my repertoire very carefully, and hopefully present the work of some artists that we haven’t seen before.”

The next two years could well be difficult for the SSO as it is forced to perform away from the Concert Hall, which has been its home since the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973. “I think it’s important not to underestimate what a challenge it is for the organisation both artistically and financially. It’s why I really support the decision taken by Emma and the organisation to create this group of conductors who are leading the orchestra through this period, and we are conductors who all know and highly respect one another so there is a lot of mutual work that will continue,” says Young.

“I’ve no doubt there will be significant financial challenges; the venues are smaller, which means fewer attendees. The difference between the Opera House and other venues cannot be underestimated. However, the orchestra is returning to its historic home [at the Town Hall] and I think that is going to be something that is quite interesting for a lot of Sydneysiders. Some of my strongest memories of Sydney Symphony are from performances in the Town Hall – Mahler Two with Stuart Challender, unforgettable.”

“I performed there myself in some contemporary programs in the late 90s and it is a venue that Sydney audiences will identify with,” adds Young.” It presents its own challenges but also some infrastructure advantages with the transport and the accessibility to people who are in the city. I think the organisation has gone about its planning very carefully and created programs and varied concert times to suit the new venue. And then, of course, there are the new acoustics – and we come back to what I was saying about the Opera House Concert Hall, which is that the acoustic is part of the instrument. There has been on my part, and certainly on the part of most of my colleagues, and Raff Wilson who does the programming engagement of artists, constant discussion about programming works that are going to benefit from the beautiful acoustics at the Town Hall. It can be over-acoustic in super-big works so we will try to avoid them and save them for when we are back in the main venue, but for the classical repertoire it will be really lovely. I am very much looking forward to my programs there next year. Beethoven’s Seventh will be really special. I think that will be very exciting.”