Q&A With Simone Young
You will be conducting a program of Brahms (Schicksalslied and Nänie) and Liszt (Dante Symphony). What connects these works to each other?
The great composers of the German Romantic were heavily influenced by the writers of their day: Goethe and Schiller in particular, but also the poems of Hölderlin held a fascination for Brahms and Liszt both. Dante’s Inferno, although a medieval work, also contains many classical references which link into the spirit of the mid-nineteenth century. The mythological references in Nänie, the spirits of Schicksalslied and the stories of Dante contained, in their allegorical nature, inspiration that went far deeper than merely the superficial meaning of the words themselves. The stories offer musical and dramatic inspiration that both composers were able to realize in a depth of musical expression which has a direct impact upon its listeners.
How does your experience as a conductor of opera inform how you conduct a highly dramatic program such as this?
Again, the composers of the German Romantic, from Mendelssohn and Beethoven to Wagner and Bruckner, were fascinated and heavily influenced by the literature of the time. Whether in lieder, oratorio, opera or symphony, the drama, born of the “Sturm und Drang” movement abounds in all these works. One can draw cross-references from one musical form to another: how does one conduct Beethoven’s 9th without knowing Fidelio thoroughly? How does one perform Brahms choral music without having a profound knowledge of his extensive lieder output in which he expanded the boundaries of vocal and piano accompaniment further than was thought possible? Can one conduct Liszt without having at least attempted many of his piano works, the first expressions of this extraordinary musical mind? I am very privileged to be able to draw on an extensive and varied musical life in opera, lieder and symphony and find inspiration for one in the other constantly.
Tell us a little bit about your musical background. What led to your career as a conductor?
I was born into a non-musical family, so my preoccupation with music from an early age was rather a surprise to all. Thanks to many years of inspiring teaching and continued support, I embarked on my professional studies as a composer. Unbeknownst to myself even at the time, this training in analysis, orchestration, structure and innovation was a wonderful preparation for life as a conductor. My early love of the piano, voice, language and drama led me to work first in opera, where I rapidly rose from rehearsal pianist to conductor, making my professional debut at the age of 24 at the Sydney Opera House. From there, further studies in Europe and a healthy dose of good fortune led me to the podiums of the opera houses of the world. It has been a very privileged life in music.
Where do you seek inspiration, in music or otherwise?
I find inspiration everywhere - in nature, its grandeur and breadth (I love the sensation of being utterly alone in a wilderness, be it snorkeling on a reef in Australia, high in the mountains in New Zealand or on a glacier in Norway), in the changing of light on water, in poetry, art and literature, in the words of inspirational leaders and in the achievements of great sportsmen and women. There is inspiration all around!
What are some highlights of the upcoming season or other projects you have on the horizon?
For me the highlight of the season is always the project on which I am working at the moment! There are certainly particular engagements which carry extra sentiment or significance: I will return to Barenboim’s Staatsoper Berlin in December, which was my musical home for many years, for Gounod’s Faust with Renee Pape as Mephistopheles. Then debuts with various orchestras in Europe and Asia, and a new production of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler at the Semperoper in Dresden, Elektra and Walküre in Munich, Aida and Macbeth in Vienna, and so on! Lots of travelling, and so much great music!!