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Performing Mahler’s monumental Symphony No 6 and Schubert’s great Unfinished Symphony, internationally acclaimed Australian-born, conductor Simone Young returns to the ASO in July to conduct the music she loves.

Why is Mahler’s Symphony No 6 so special to you?
This is probably the symphony which has fascinated me most in the last 20 years. It demands virtuosity from the orchestra, expansive vision from the conductor and commands great focus from the audience.

Mahler dispenses with the voices and texts which dominated his earlier symphonies, drawing as they do on the material from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Instead he bathes us in colours, harmonies and landscapes - and with the paradoxes with which his life was littered. It is a symphony that one cannot perform, or witness, for that matter, without being drawn into a passionate and deeply emotional world.

Wilhelm Furtwängler once described Mahler’s Symphony No 6 as “the first nihilist work in the history of music”? Do you think he was right?
“The first nihilist work in the history of music” is a wonderful quote, even if it is a highly questionable and very subjective comment. I believe Furtwängler is describing essentially the final movement of the symphony, a monumental structure which for any other composer of his time would have been an independent tone-poem and not part of a greater whole.

It is said that Mahler was very superstitious and omitted one of the hammer “blows of Fate” leaving just two, but you’ve said you “fly in the face of superstition…

I always perform the work with the three hammer blows, the three “blows of Fate” that interrupt the progress of our Hero, and finally fell him as he arrives at the pinnacle. But considering this is to examine the end state without embarking on the journey that has brought us there.

What are your views as to why Schubert never came back to finish this glorious work?
I find Schubert’s Unfinished to be a work of great intensity and also of overwhelming tenderness.

Anyone with some imagination can come up with a plausible reason as to why it was left unfinished, but I prefer not to indulge in such pointless speculation, but rather to examine the work as it stands, and to find a logic, if unorthodox, in its structure.

The large expanse of the first movement (particularly when one performs it, as I always do, with the exposition repeated - as indicated by the composer) offers its own challenges. Rhythmically robust, its energetic pulse threatens to dominate but the lyricism of the melodic lines must dictate the parameters of the large form. I think it is always essential with Schubert to be very familiar with his exquisite song cycles and that these provide the clue: there are often insistent and repetitive piano figures accompanying subtle and highly expressive melodic vocal lines - and it is the challenge for the artist to allow the melodic phrasing to influence the rhythmic figures.

The slow movement is also a relatively expansively structured movement for its time, but the elegant yearning of the solo lines shape a very organic form. Once again, simple rhythmic figures underpin some of Schubert’s loveliest symphonic melodic writing, and frankly, the conductor should not really get in the way of the almost chamber-musical simplicity of the orchestration.

Rather like Bruckner’s ninth, the question mark that the “unfinished” nature of the work presents us is almost an enhancement of the rhetoric of this symphony and an invitation to philosophical reflection.

Do you think a more proactive response is needed to reverse gender inequality in the classical world, and in Australia particularly?

I am in no doubt that there is still a long way to go in achieving a level playing-ground in the world of conducting and composition. I do not however see my role as that of an evangelist - I believe the most eloquent statement that I can make is simply to continue to strive to present moving interpretations of the great works I am privileged to conduct. I hope that in doing so, I can provide inspiration to talented young musicians, irrespective of their gender.

Simone Young, AM, is internationally recognised as one of the leading conductors of her generation and was  General Manager and Music Director of the Hamburgische Staatsoper and Music Director of the Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg from 2005 - 2015. An acknowledged interpreter of the operas of Wagner and Strauss, she has conducted several complete cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Vienna Staatsoper, the Staatsoper in Berlin and in Hamburg. Her Hamburg recordings include the Ring cycle, Mathis der Maler (Hindemith), and symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler.

Simone Young has been Music Director of Opera Australia, Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, Lisbon. She has conducted at all the leading opera houses including the Vienna Staatsoper, Opéra National de Paris, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Bayerische Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera New York, Los Angeles Opera and Houston Grand Opera, and regularly leads some of the world’s great orchestras including the Berlin, Vienna,  Munich, London and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Bruckner Orchestra, Linz, City of Birmingham Symphony, and the Wiener Symphoniker.

She has been elected to the Akademie der Kuenste in Hamburg, awarded a Professorship at the Musikhochschule in Hamburg and Honorary Doctorates from Griffith University, Monash University and the University of New South Wales. Other awards include Green Room and Helpmann Awards, the 2014 International Opera Awards for best anniversary production for Verdi trilogy - La battaglia di Legnano, I due Foscari, I Lombardi with the Hamburg Staatsoper, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France, the Goethe Institute Medal and the Sir Bernard Heinze Award.

Simone Young regularly returns to Australia, and in 2016 will also lead the Queensland, West Australian and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras, and the Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra, Melbourne.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra first performed Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on 16 July 1938 under conductor Georg Szell, and most recently on 4 April 2012 with David Sharp.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra first performed Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on 17 March 1984 under the direction of Albert Rosen, and most recently in October 2011 under Arvo Volmer.

This article was posted by Michelle Robins, Publications & Communications Coordinator, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The full feature article on Simone Young written by Arts Editor, Graham Strahle was first published in the July issue of The Adelaide Review.

Simone Young & Mahler

Sat 23 Jul 7.30pm
Festival Theatre



Photo credits: Simone Young by Berthold Fabricius


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