The appointment of Simone Young as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s new chief conductor is a watershed moment for music in this country in two respects – for the fact that she is homegrown and a women. Two of her predecessors at the SSO were Australian, Charles Mackerras and Stuart Challender; and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra was in fact the first Australian symphony orchestra to gain a female principal conductor when it appointed Alondra de la Parra in 2015.
However, this combination together has never happened before. Young’s background and achievements hardly need repeating here, but suffice to say she will come to the SSO with a lot of clout. Enjoying one of the highest international profiles of any Australian musician, and having won the larger part of that reputation working in the esteemed but relatively conservative opera houses and orchestras of Germany and Vienna, her appointment in this country will do much to further reverse old notions of conducting being a male domain.
At the same time, it would be a big mistake to judge her appointment purely along these lines. Her agenda, as she has said on numerous occasions, is the music, and she sees this as transcending gender lines. Making great music, in her view, counts for more than words, and to be seen to be doing this from the podium really says it all.
How the SSO will change and evolve during her initial three-year tenure from 2022 remains to be seen, of course, but it would be churlish to suggest that her known forte of Austro-German repertoire will dictate its programs. Instead it may be helpful to take the lead from what Young has said about one musician she particularly admires and who has influenced her perhaps more than any other, and that is Challender.
In a 2010 BBC 3 interview with Norman Lebrecht, she spoke at length about she and he shared many similar views and how he helped guide her musical instincts and passion during her early career. Young recounted how she assisted Challender over a two or three year period during her conducting apprenticeship, remarking that he was very encouraging to her and “opened the musical world”.
Challender was a great promoter of Australian music, and so is Young. This January, she conducted Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center in a concert that earned her much critical praise. Last year she gave the Australian premiere of his Notturno inquieto with the QSO, and earlier she conducted Bliss in Hamburg in 2010. Young also led WASO in the world premiere of Andrew Schultz’s concerto Maali in 2016, and years ago she commissioned the song cycle Love’s blazing fire from Michael Whiticker (1991). Undoubtedly we will see more – probably a lot more. Already, in an interview for Limelight, she has signalled that in her programming at the SSO she will keep an eye on lesser heard “Australian composers of the older generation” as well as younger composers.
The orchestra is understandably chuffed to have secured Young. “Simone comes to the Sydney Symphony with an extraordinary international reputation for artistic excellence and musical success across the symphonic and operatic spheres,” said CEO Emma Dunch in announcing the appointment. “Her extraordinary talent and achievements, and her presence here, will have a profound impact on the musical and cultural life of our nation.”
“Simone Young was our Orchestra’s first choice and we are truly honoured that Simone has agreed to take up this role,” said Board of Directors Chair, Terrey Arcus.
For a taste of what is to come, Young conducts the SSO this November in Dean’s Testament for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7.
Meanwhile, the QSO is on the hunt for a new Music Director after Alondra de la Parra’s three-year term ended in 2019. She is currently conducting ballet companies and orchestras in Germany, Spain, France and the UK.