Although Australian conductor Simone Young is rooted in both the operatic and symphonic worlds, she got her start as a répétiteur (coach-accompanist) and remains most closely connected to that realm. “My first love is still the opera, and I have a long and very happy relationship with a few of Europe’s major opera houses,” she said. “So I spend probably about four or five months a year doing opera, and the rest is now doing concerts.”
Therefore, it’s not surprising that excerpts from one of the form’s most celebrated works will be at the heart of Young’s debut program June 6-8 and 11 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: selections from Götterdämmerung, the last of the four musical dramas in Richard Wagner’s epic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Young, 58, is particularly noted as a specialist in the operatic music of Wagner and Richard Strauss and has led several complete performances of “The Ring” at the Berlin State Opera, Hamburg State Opera and Vienna State Opera. She also feels a closeness to those composers’ symphonic counterparts like Bruckner and Mahler, as well as the composers of the Second Viennese School, including Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.
“My fascination with the German language is a big part of that,” she said. “My experience and many years within the German musical world is a big part of that. I remember being transfixed the first time I listened to Tristan’s Prelude [from Tristan and Isolde]. I think it was the first piece of Wagner that I heard. I was about 16. I grew up in a completely non-musical family but I was blown away.”
After leaving Australia, where she was the first woman and youngest person to serve as resident conductor of Opera Australia, she began her musical odyssey into the Austro-Germanic musical world. Young became an assistant to James Conlon at the Cologne Opera and Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera and Bayreuth Festival. She made her first conducting appearance at the Hamburg State Opera in 1996 and went on to serve as artistic director of the company and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 through 2015.
Since leaving her post in Hamburg, Young has moved to the south of England and has shed all titles other than principal conductor of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland, which only requires two weeks or so of her time each year. “After permanent positions as both the head of the opera in Sydney and then the head of the opera in Hamburg, which were massive jobs,” she said, “I’m great enjoying the life of a free-lance conductor — a baton for hire.”
Young conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1990s and Los Angeles Opera in the early 2000s, but gave up traveling to the United States and Japan a few years after she settled into her post in Hamburg. Its demands, as well as the responsibility of caring for two elderly parents, restricted her schedule. Since 2015, she has begun to return to the two countries. “And that’s now really taking off, which is most enjoyable,” she said. “I’m free to travel much more.”
For her CSO debut, she will open her program with Franz Liszt’s 1850 tone poem, Prometheus. Once it was decided that she was doing selections from Götterdämmerung, she wanted to pair them with something that was musically related and also had a literary theme. The musical connections between Liszt and Wagner are “very obvious and very well documented,” she said, and Prometheus has a similar mood. “If we are finishing the first half with Siegfried’s Funeral March, you want to open the first half with something dark, too,” she said. “So there is a musical and atmospheric link between the two first sections of the program.”
For decades, Young has been fascinated with the program’s concluding selection, Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. “If you like, it’s sort of the Fifth Symphony by Brahms, because Schoenberg took this piano quartet and turned it into quite an extraordinary symphony,” she said. “All great symphonic music is basically chamber music played big. And this is really taking that in a very literal sense — this is chamber music played symphonically.”
This arrangement is infrequently heard. The CSO last performed it in December 2011 with Michael Tilson Thomas as guest conductor. Young suspects that some orchestras might have a reluctance to program this work because they are afraid audiences will be turned off by the mention of Schoenberg, best known as the inventor of the sometimes prickly 12-tone technique. But she said listeners have nothing to fear with this orchestrated work — the music is all “pure Brahms.”
“The Chicago Symphony has an extraordinary reputation,” she said. “It’s an amazing orchestra, and the Chicago brass are legendary. I’m really looking forward to doing this with the CSO.”