'Homecoming' to lead Sydney Symphony

Tony MagnussonAAP
Simone Young will be the first woman chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Camera IconSimone Young will be the first woman chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Credit: AAP

When conductor Simone Young steps onto the podium of the Sydney Opera House's newly upgraded concert hall it will be more of a homecoming than many people realise.

Young is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor and on July 20 will be in place for Mahler's Symphony No. 2, as part of the 2022 season unveiled on Tuesday.

"I grew up in Manly, so as a little kid I would cross the harbour by ferry with my dad, and we watched the Sydney Opera House being built," Young said from Zurich.

"It's such an iconic building, and to be leading this orchestra now, following the complete refurbishment of the hall - I mean, how often do you get the chance to have a new beginning?"

It may be no coincidence that Young, who routinely conducts the world's leading orchestras and opera companies, has included the majestic Mahler 2, known as the 'Resurrection' symphony, in the reopening celebrations.

These back-in-the-House performances will also mark Young's debut as chief conductor of an orchestra she has been involved with for 25 years.

"The first time I saw the Mahler 2 was when Stuart Challender led the symphony in a performance of it," she says of the acclaimed late conductor, under whose baton, among others, Young trained.

"That gives me a strong personal connection to the work and to the orchestra, which is one of real excellence across a broad range of repertoire."

Not only that, but Mahler toiled away at the score while musical director of the Hamburg State Opera, which Young herself led - along with the Hamburg Philharmonic - between 2005 and 2015.

Mahler's massive symphony, which the company hasn't performed in more than a decade, calls for a full-to-bursting orchestra, two singers and a large choir.

The concerts will feature American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and Paris-based Australian soprano Nicole Car.

"I've hired her as my soloist for a big new production at one of the world's major opera houses a couple of years down the track," Young reveals of Car.

"She's a great artist and to have her in the Mahler 2 is wonderful."

The symphony will be preceded by the world premiere of a new work by Kalkadunga composer and didgeridoo performer William Barton, part of the orchestra's 50 Fanfares commissioning project.

"For me, it was important to have a significant Indigenous-Australian voice opening that space," Young says of Barton, who has previously collaborated with the orchestra on two commissions.

In autumn 2022, the orchestra will continue to perform in Sydney Town Hall, as they did last year and earlier this year.

The chapter includes a concert of Brahms and Tchaikovsky under the baton of Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski.

Much-loved Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk will also play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with fellow local Benjamin Northey conducting.

In the winter and spring of 2022, Young will lead the orchestra in nine separate concerts, including the Mahler 2, in the renewed concert hall.

Grammy-garlanded American violinist Hilary Hahn will perform Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Danish baritone Bo Skovhus will feature in Brahms' A German Requiem alongside Australian soprano Emma Matthews and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

Spanish classical pianist Javier Perianes will make his Australian debut, performing all five of Beethoven's piano concertos.

The orchestra and Belvoir theatre company will come together to present A Midsummer Night's Dream in an interpretation of the Shakespearean text and Mendelssohn's incidental music for orchestra and voice.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes will perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto and three of his sonatas.

And there's a People's Choice concert of audience-chosen works, a format Young first tested in Hamburg and found to be highly popular.

"The audience gets to create the program and so everybody feels like they have ownership of it," she says.

"In some ways, this is our gift to Sydney audiences who have been so supportive of and faithful to the orchestra these past 18 months."

At the end of each season, Young and the orchestra will present an opera in concert mode.

In 2022, it's Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, starring South African soprano Elza van den Heever alongside heldentenor Simon O'Neill and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, both from New Zealand.

Having recently read Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by academic and writer Tyson Yunkaporta, a member of the Apalech Clan of far north Queensland, Young had an idea.

"One of the exciting things about this job is that I am seeking to actively engage with Indigenous artists," Young says.

"Tyson is a unique voice. He is drawing on Indigenous culture while also putting it into a contemporary context and giving it timeless relevance."

Young says that is exactly what she is trying to do with classical music.

She has removed the opera's spoken dialogue in favour of five passages of prose she commissioned Yunkaporta to write.

"They are confronting, provoking at times, deeply emotional - I still get goosebumps when I read them and I've read them half a dozen times already," Young says.

"They highlight key points of the subject material of Beethoven's opera, which is really about humanitarian principles, and I think that's not a bad way to close out your first season."

Other highlights include concerts with principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles and former chief conductor Edo de Waart, and performances by Grammy Award-winning German-American violinist Augustin Hadelich and German cellist Daniel Muller-Schott.

Young is only the third Australian - and the first woman - to hold the position of chief conductor in the orchestra's 90-year history.

"It just feels right," she says of her upcoming role at the helm of the orchestra, adding that it's been almost 20 years since she was music director of Opera Australia, from 2001 to 2003.

Somewhat controversially, Young's contract with the opera company was not renewed.

"I've had an amazing time in Europe and America and that will continue," she says. "But I've been guest-conducting this orchestra for 25 years, and over the last five years we've found a passion for the same music and an ease with one another that lays the best possible foundation for a great working collaboration for the coming years.

"Sydney is my home," she continues.

"My place of residence might be in the UK and I might spend most of the year in Germany and Austria, but I still burst into a huge smile when the plane touches down at Mascot."

Young is due back in Sydney in February.

Currently in Zurich to conduct the Zurich Opera in a new production of Richard Strauss's Salome, Young has just finished conducting the Vienna State Opera in a new production of Henze's Das verratene Meer (The Betrayed Sea).

She has been at the top of her game for decades, and in that time she's seen the industry change.

"Thirty years ago, I would walk into a pit in Berlin and unless the orchestra started to applaud, there would be no applause until I actually got onto the podium, because people assumed I was a musician coming in late," she says.

"There is no longer a gasp of surprise when a woman steps out on stage to conduct."

Young says she's always refused to talk about being a woman conductor.

"But now I've hit 60, I figure I can say that my position in the industry is not thanks to any reverse discrimination. Everybody appreciates that I'm here because I put the work in."

Last year, Young was given a tour of the concert hall, where the upgrade is taking longer than expected, hence why the first chapter of next year's season will take place at Sydney Town Hall.

"All the acoustics are new, the stage has been lowered so the sight-lines are better, and there are hydraulics in different sections so you can raise elements of the stage," she says.

While surveying the hall, Young climbed the scaffolding all the way to the top and touched the ceiling.

"I can't tell you how emotional I was," she says.

"My first concert experience in that hall was seeing Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic perform Tchaikovsky's 6th, which took place before the official opening concert in 1973."

Not only did Young watch the Sydney Opera House being built, not only did she make her conducting debut there in 1985, but the music she has conducted there since has touched that selfsame ceiling, and audiences beneath it, countless times.

She says her appointment just feels right.

"I come from a family that has no musical background whatsoever, absolute zip, so I'm quite evangelical about bringing in people who haven't had the opportunity to be exposed to classical music," she says.

"Come and hear us because this is an experience that will change your life. The music is emotional, deep and physical. And when people hear something that affects them like that, that's us doing our job properly."

For more information on the orchestra's 2022 season, visit www.sydneysymphony.com

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails