A concert by Simone Young is always an event, but what would it take for her to accept a role in Australia, asks Matthew Westwood
You wonder how Young does it, maintaining a family in Britain and keeping an international career on the go, and with an elderly mother back in Australia.
“Because Dad only passed away recently, and we lost my brother only a few years ago, she’s on her own in Sydney,” Young says. “I’m the only child, I’m on the other side of the globe and I have responsibilities there. I just try to come out here as often as I can to be with Mum. We talk every day.”
She continues: “Look, it’s hard. And this profession is a very difficult one to combine with real life. I can’t remember the last time I walked into a supermarket, which really is sad because I’m not that person.”
Unlike medicine or the legal profession, there is no obvious career path to becoming a conductor. Young’s parents weren’t particularly musical.
Harry, her father, was a dapper man who worked as a family solicitor. He loved listening to music on the radio and had a special fondness for music of the French impressionists. Her mother, born Simice, emigrated with her parents from a fishing village in Croatia to the West Australian goldfields. Young’s grandfather Svetin ran a pub in Boulder called the International Club that was burned to the ground amid the anti-immigrant violence that engulfed the goldfields in 1934. They lost everything they had brought with them from Croatia: her mother has only one photograph of herself younger than the age of eight.
“Immigration has always been such a dodgy issue, still is, everywhere,” Young reflects. “And the moment people feel financial pressure, the last wave of immigrants are the ones who cop it.”
Young has described herself as “thoroughly Germanised”, having lived much of her working life in that country, but talking with her in Brisbane, she is very much the Aussie girl. Her manner is familiarly Australian, relaxed and friendly. Even when discussing musical concepts — for example, the connection between the rhythmic pulse of languages and music — she speaks as if it’s a catch-up over coffee or a glass of wine.
Her family did not have a record player until she was 12 years old — such a thing was regarded as a luxury — and her exposure to music was from opera broadcasts on the radio or what she could play for herself.
“I had sight-read my way through all the Beethoven piano sonatas by the time I was 12,” she says. “If I wanted to listen to something, it was either the ABC on the radio, or I would scour church fetes and car-boot sales, and buy boxes of old music and sit down and sight-read at the piano. I had a curiosity for this stuff, and I had to hear it, that weight of sound.”
After her studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and an apprenticeship at Opera Australia and in Cologne, she became an assistant to pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, one of the giants of the music world. She recalls Barenboim once describing the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms as “keyboard players’ music”: playing the piano influenced the way they thought about composing for orchestra.
“It’s a vertical weight, having to be carried through a horizontal line,” Young explains. “That’s how you conduct Bruckner, and it’s Wagner as well.”
Yes, it’s a generalisation, but she makes the point by way of explaining her attraction to the Austro-German musical tradition: its weight and gravity, compared with, say, the upward inflections of Italian music.
Among her achievements at Hamburg was a new production of Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle — she brought the Hamburg forces to Brisbane in 2012 to perform the first part, Das Rheingold — and the complete symphonies of
Conductor Simone Young