Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favorite works in the B&H catalog. Read other “Performer Picks” interviews with Patrick Summers, Marin Alsop, and Julia Bullock.
Renowned conductor Simone Young has always enjoyed performing classic works alongside music being composed today. Having studied composition herself, she explains: “I’m quite evangelical about new music. If you go back to Klemperer’s day, it was not considered anything unusual for someone to conduct Beethoven and Brahms and Wagner and Bruckner, alongside the music of his day. Now we often keep new music specialists separate. And I disagree with that, because new music is a development. It’s come from somewhere. It has roots.”
Whether she is premiering a new work by Brett Dean or returning to an old favorite like Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (which she conducts at the Vienna Staatsopera in January) she approaches the score with the same musical commitment, stating: “I never conduct as a mathematical exercise. I have to like the piece, and then there will always be an emotional substance to it.”
Read on for Young’s reflections on favorite operas and orchestral works by Dean, Chin, Strauss, Britten, and Prokofieff.
> Listen to Young’s "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.
> Watch a video excerpt from our interview with Young.
1. Brett Dean, Testament for orchestra
I’ve known Brett for years. We’re both Australians who have a long history working in the German musical scene, and our musical history goes back now three decades. His music is very original and complex, but it is strongly linked to the traditions of German music making. His years of playing in the Berlin Philharmonic are obvious in his masterful string writing. He doesn’t back away from any kind of emotional commitment in the music either. So it combines this technical virtuosity with real emotional foundation, and that appeals to me immediately.
I love his fantasy and his ability to play with the sound worlds. He can take a familiar sound and translate it into something else—he does this in Testament in a way I find to be so touching. The title refers to Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament in which he acknowledges his profound deafness, and his despair over what this is going to do to his creative process. Brett had the extraordinary idea of giving all the string players two sets of bows: one set that is rosined, and one set that is not rosined, so they just skate over the strings and make a sort of smoky sound. It’s very shadowy and nuanced. He’ll often use the same material—one time with the rosin on the bows, then once without—and one gets the impression that we are moving in and out of conscious auditory experience, giving us a little bit of insight into what Beethoven’s progressive deafness was doing to his perception of sound. I find that exceptionally moving.
> Listen to Brett Dean’s Testament
2. Unsuk Chin, Cello Concerto
Unsuk has always struck me as having quite an individual voice, and one that just personally appeals to me. She’s also that rare creature whose music transcends international boundaries. I had been aware of her music for a long time, but I was first introduced to her Cello Concerto through Alban Gerhardt, who is a great collaborator and personal friend of mine. He premiered Unsuk’s concerto in 2009 and recorded it, as well. So when we were looking for a concerto to program with him and the Cincinnati Symphony in 2020 it was just a perfect opportunity to do it, and I will definitely perform it with him again. He plays Unsuk’s work extraordinarily well.
There’s a lot of rhythmic complexity in Unsuk’s writing, and an extraordinary use of natural harmonics—not just in the cello solo, but throughout the whole cello section. The solo part is always very striking, because of its rhythmic vitality, or the tonal shades that she brings with the different playing techniques. It’s a very beautiful work.
> Listen to Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto
3. Prokofieff, The Gambler, Opera and Orchestral Suite
I first conducted The Gambler in Vienna in 2017, but I was already aware of it as a Prokofieff fan. I was very impressed by the virtuosity of this music. It is really like nothing else. It’s edgier than his ballets. It is a bit like some Shostakovich, but it has all the hallmarks of Prokofieff as we know him: wonderful rhythmic vitality, beautiful melody, great use of instrumentation, motivic use. It’s a fascinating piece.
The use of the text is very powerful. It’s comic, but it’s very dark, and Prokofieff really underlined the humor well. He almost caricatures some of the characters. The grandmother, for example—in the novel, she is sort of a grande dame, but on the opera stage, she’s very much a grande dame past her peak. I think Prokofieff did that quite deliberately: The instruments he chooses to double with her in the contra, the double bassoon, the tuba, and the double basses by themselves—it's all just ever so slightly off. There is clear musical humor and musical sarcasm and sardonic twists of phrasing going on to underline the bleak humor of any given scene.
I had a very satisfying, very happy experience doing the opera in 2017, and when I was talking to BBC Philharmonic in Manchester about some possible programming ideas, we came up with the idea of doing the suite from The Gambler. It’s a very well-constructed suite—it is not just the interludes lifted out of the opera, it’s actual portraits of characters taken from the opera. I found it fascinating, and I’m surprised it’s not performed more often. It’s quite virtuosic, and it’s really a bit of a crowd pleaser. When we did it in Manchester the musicians had never played it, and they were completely thrilled by it, as was the audience. I’m definitely looking for the next opportunity to do it again.
> Listen to Prokofieff’s The Gambler (opera)
> Listen to Prokofieff's Four Portraits from The Gambler (suite)
4. Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes
I did my first Peter Grimes in Vienna back in the ’90s. So I’m very excited to conduct it there again next year and to see how both the orchestra and I return to the same piece 25 years on. In the meantime, I conducted it in Hamburg a number of times, and I perform the Four Sea Interludes any time I can.
It is an astonishing work, particularly when you think that he was 32 when he wrote it. It is almost mindboggling to conceive of the kind of musical maturity that gives us the “Moonlight” sea picture, or Ellen’s “Embroidery Aria.” These are moments that you would credit to a composer with decades of experience. Grimes’s aria in the middle of the opera,“Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” is another extraordinary moment. He’s talking about the stars and the planets, and the voice is essentially on a single tone while the harmonies move around it. It’s like the sun in its fixed place in the solar system, with the planets circling it.
The story itself is about honesty, the tragedy of these central characters, and the claustrophobic nature of this small village on the edge of the vastness of the sea. These are elemental, timeless concepts that always speak to an audience. It always feels new. It always feels fresh. The final scene in particular has this extraordinary character of feeling sort of improvised, like it’s happening in the moment, which is an extraordinary thing for an opera stage.
> Listen to Britten’s Peter Grimes
5. Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs
Four Last Songs is one of my great favorites. Each of the songs is so very moving in its own way. I love performing them. I’ve done them many times with many different singers, and it is always a joy.
I think my favorites are the last two songs: “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Im Abendrot.” “Beim Schlafengehen” literally translates to “in the moment of going to sleep.” Of course, it’s a metaphor for death, but it’s astonishing because it’s full of joyous moments. Strauss acknowledges sadness in a way that says, this is the cycle of life, and it’s beautiful and natural. The beautiful violin solo that leads into the voice in this song gets me every time. I can never look at my soloist at that point or I’ll be gone. [laughs]
I last performed it in Paris last November during the lockdown. They had cleared out the stage completely and the orchestra was spread over the entire floor of the hall. My lovely soloist Elza van den Heever hadn’t sung in public in eight months. She had barely sung half a dozen notes, and we were all just sobbing. It was so beautiful to hear this glorious human voice and this beautiful music.
> Listen to Strauss’s Four Last Songs
Photo: Bertold Fabricius
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