When Australian conductor Simone Young visits New Zealand this month to conduct the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra,her programme consists of Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Linz Symphony. In New Zealand, Bruckner symphony performances are rare. I love them, but there is no doubt some concert-goers are wary of them. If that’s you, read what Young says and be ready to change your mind. Young is also known as the conductor who had a difficult relationship with Opera Australia. I had a feeling, unfounded as it turned out, that questions about Opera Australia or Sydney Opera House might be unwelcome, so I started our interview with questions about Bruckner.
Growing up in New Zealand was a Bruckner-free zone for me. It was only when I got to London and heard Barbarolli conducting Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in the Proms that I discovered what I had been missing. Was it like that for you, too, growing up in Australia? I have no recollection of hearing Bruckner before I left Australia. I left when I was 25 and if I heard any Bruckner at all it might have been one of the Masses. Bruckner became a conscious interest once I was living in Germany. When I joined the music staff at the Cologne Opera, James Conlon was principal conductor there and he did a number of the Bruckner symphonies in his concert programmes, and that was when I first became acquainted with some of them. And then, of course, I went to Berlin and was working with Daniel Barenboim, who today is one of the great Bruckner conductors. He has recorded them all twice and I just recently attended two concerts – part of a concert series in Vienna where he conducted all nine symphonies over a space of 10 days. Extraordinary.
How do you think one should tackle the problem of management and audience wariness of Bruckner? I think Bruckner suffers, in general, from a generally rather bad press. Most people who are not familiar with him tend to think of his symphonies – and these are absolute misconceptions – as overlong, that it is all very religious, and heady and boring. Well, I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. I think that in his music Bruckner lived the kind of dramatic, theatrical life that was lacking in his personal life. I find his music very direct and very emotional. And that’s how I choose to perform him. Perhaps the performance traditions of the 70s and 80s, when some great Bruckner conductors who had a very different view of him, are [partly to blame]. I’m thinking of conductors like Gunther Wand and Sergiu Celibidache, who were the most famous of the Brucknerians then, who were notorious for taking 10 minutes longer to conduct the symphonies than had been the case in the past. I think if we try to see what Bruckner’s musical influences were and where it went after Bruckner I find a direct line from Beethoven, through Schumann, to Bruckner, and from Bruckner it continues to Humperdinck and Pfitzner and Hindemith and follows that kind of path, rather than the Mahlerian path of Mahler and Richard Strauss and then to the second Viennese School.
I agree, but am surprised at the mention of Schumann rather than Schubert. I hear influences of Schubert’s great C major symphony in a lot of Bruckner I think you can hear Schubert, particularly in a number of the central movements, in the Landlers, the scherzos, sometimes in the trios. I’ve just recorded his Symphony No 0, and the little trio there is pure Schubert chamber music. It’s quite extraordinary. I find the Fifth fascinating: it’s a very dramatic symphony, it’s a symphony that I find very direct in its approach to the musical material. It’s quite quirky in places, like the little clarinet figure that suddenly appears in the last movement. It’s really quite surprising, it’s almost as though Bruckner was letting us see a hitherto unseen larrikin side. But the music is deeply emotional and anyone who likes Beethoven and who has a fleeting acquaintance with Wagner is going to find the Bruckner symphonies really compelling.
Bruckner, we know, was very religious. How important is that? Is there any truth in the suggestion you have to be a believer to enjoy his symphonies? Oh, absolutely not. I think we often confuse a person’s life with their artistic output, [when] there may be no connection. The fact that Wagner was essentially a very unpleasant man and that his anti-Semitic writings are appalling diminishes [his music] in no way, [nor does it] change the way I approach conducting Tristan and Isolde, which is one of the great works of humanity, and love, and compassion. I think Bruckner’s the same: yes, he was a very religious man; he was a product of his environment, he was a product of his schooling and his occupation. I think that what’s much more important is that he was an organist – if you listen to the symphonies and think with the understanding of how an organ sounds in a huge space and the amount of time required between changes of harmony and how one can improvise on an organ, all these elements can be heard in his music, but I don’t hear his symphonies as religious works. They are so rich and so moving you can probably hear into them almost anything that you would like to. I don’t think he would have conceived the scherzos of his symphonies as he did if he was focused on religious concepts, because the scherzos have a completely undiluted demonic character to them. You find that kind of colour and drama in almost all his symphonies. I think the Cathedral of Sound title the NZSO has given the concert is a really wonderful concept because it does explain certain elements of the symphonies. I see them as massive structures, such as a cathedral; a massive structure that is capable of creating many, many different moods. The slow movements of his symphonies are exquisitely beautiful, almost painfully beautiful at times. I imagine you could use the slow movements as an inspiration to meditation, to reflective thought. There is grandeur in them, there is nobility, there is humanity in them; and that’s their power. A Bruckner symphony is never just another concert. [In the same way that] you never go out of a Beethoven Ninth Symphony [performance] feeling it was just another concert, it’s always something special – and it’s not just the choir at the end, it’s the entire span of the symphony. Well, a Bruckner symphony makes you feel like that.
Perhaps it’s relevant to say that Beethoven’s Ninth was a huge influence on Bruckner? Beethoven Nine was in Bruckner’s mind as the ultimate symphonic achievement.
What about that misconception of Bruckner as naïve, whereas he is, surely, an intellectual composer of the first order? It was partly because of the early reception of his symphonies, the rejection of number two and then number eight by the Vienna Phil. Bruckner being the fairly mild-mannered person he was, while at the same time wanting to have his symphonies performed, went away and rewrote them or put them to one side. I find it very telling that Wagner’s response when the Vienna Phil said to him “Maestro, this is unplayable”, he said, “Well, I didn’t write it for you.” That kind of completely brash arrogance and self-confidence was completely foreign to Bruckner. And yet, in a way, I find the first drafts of his symphonies far more compelling, and actually quite modern, in the technical demands he makes of his players that were already quite extreme for the period. And the same of his listeners; some people describe it as naivety, I describe it as challenging. Some of the harmonic constructions he makes are a little foreign to our sense of what late romantic composers should have been doing. But, again, take it back to the organ; think of how an organist improvises, creating sequences of sometimes quite unorthodox progressions. Bruckner sometimes applies those same techniques to the development sections in his symphonies. That’s a very technical way of saying that his music has to be judged on its own merits, we shouldn’t try to put it into certain constraints. I don’t think it’s naïve, I think it’s direct.
I see that later in August there is a major Hamburg artistic invasion? Yes, that’s correct. It’s the first time since 1974 that the orchestra, the ensemble and the ballet are all going on tour. It’s a huge undertaking, being financed by sponsorship and by Queensland. It’s part of a five-year project Leo Schofield has called into life, bringing out big international companies to Brisbane. I’ve had a long working relationship with Leo, and when we did a Ring Cycle [in Hamburg] last year 400 Australians came across to see us, and Leo thought, “Well, why don’t we bring you out [to Brisbane] and see what happens?” And, indeed, there are people coming from all over Australia to Brisbane.
It’s your relationship with Hamburg that has made this all possible? Well, Hamburg finds itself in a situation where the Australian connection is very powerful, because I look after the opera and the music chief of the ballet is also an Australian, Simon Hewett, so you have two Australians who will be conducting the programmes. The other great drawcard is John Neumeyer, who is one of the finest and really legendary – you can apply that title to him now, as he has recently turned 70 – choreographers and he’s celebrating 40 years in Hamburg next year, which is extraordinary. John has never been to Australia and his works have never been to Australia, even though the company has toured pretty much everywhere else in the world. So we’re bring this all out at once; we’re doing two concert performances of Das Rheingold, and one concert of Mahler’s Second Symphony, and then the orchestra and I return to Hamburg to start preparations for the season that opens two weeks later, and John and the ballet stay on and with the local Queensland orchestra will do a two-week ballet season.
And this is all Brisbane only, not Sydney or Melbourne? Certainly. That was a non-negotiable part of the deal with Queensland, that these companies would come to Brisbane and Brisbane exclusively, so if Sydneysiders want to see us they have to fly up to Brisbane.
Queensland wants to be known as much more than just somewhere you go to lie on the beach? Absolutely. They are really trying to push the cultural tourism. They have very good venues, the concert hall in the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is a very good hall, and it’s a very attractive city to visit, so I think, all power to them.
I notice you’ve done Brett Dean’s Bliss in Hamburg. Does this mean you are pushing Australian music there? Well, more to the point, I’m very focused on good contemporary music theatre. I feel very strongly that a lot of new works, a lot of operas, get one outing, one premiere season, one production, and for most people those performances become the work. Whereas I think a work needs to be given numerous performances, numerous productions with different casts, different directors, different conductors, before one actually starts to see the real value of the work itself. So I’ve started a series in Hamburg where we deliberately did second productions of new operas. We did the second production of Hans-Werner Henze’s L’Upupa [the first production was for Salzburg and Madrid and it is in his own words to be his last opera]; we have done the same with several works since [such as Dean’s Bliss]. We have also commissioned a number of new works and are also in the final stages of commissioning a full-length opera to be produced in 2015, in my final season [with Hamburg]. I’m very focused on new works. I actually studied composition, I never studied to be a conductor. I was for all intents and purposes set on becoming a composer and going down the academic path.
So who did you study with, and I’m presuming it was in Sydney? I studied with Ted [Edwin] Carr; I was actually still at school and I had a scholarship to study music at the [Sydney] Conservatorium of Music for an hour a week – that would have been in 1975-76. Then I studied for two years with Martin Wesley-Smith, and then when I started my fellowship degree I was a student of Don Banks. But I very quickly found that the life of a composer was not for me. I’m someone who likes to make music with other people, so I dropped composition and switched over to piano and was very happy accompanying everybody in the place, including the singers, and that was really my start into opera.
I knew Ted very well indeed, and although I never studied with him I feel sure he must have been a fascinating teacher? Yes, Ted was my first composition teacher when I first won the scholarship. He was wonderful because he really made me work through the different musical styles of the 20th century; it was very challenging when you think I was, basically, yet another classically trained 15-year-old schoolgirl. Ted really pushed me and it was very exciting. I’d come from a completely non-musical family and I had no clue who Ted was or what I was in for. I had just always proposed from the time I was a small child that [music] was what I wanted to do.
Ted was a great challenger of the establishment. He was always trying to expand one’s outlook? Well, I was greatly in need of it. I had studied piano from the age of five, I’d taken up flute, I’d always written and always had a very keen interest and ability at hearing harmony, orchestration, the technical side of all of that, but had been exposed to very little serious music. I’d attended my first concert when I was 12 and went to my first opera when I was 14. We didn’t have a record player until I was 12. I scrounged church fetes and school fetes when I was nine and 10 for bits of music that I would pick up for 20c or 50c. I’d take them home and sight-read my way through them – I had eager curiosity. I was just very fortunate to have stumbled across a number of very talented and very committed teachers.
How do you feel about Opera Australia now with Lyndon Terracini in control? The problem with the pit is not solved in Sydney and will continue to be a problem until it is addressed.
I gather that in their very recent production of Die Tote Stadt, because the orchestra Korngold writes for is so large, they actually had the orchestra in an adjacent studio and piped the music into the opera theatre? Yes, I think it was quite a noble endeavour. Die Tote Stadt has that huge orchestra and rather than making major compromises in the orchestration moving the orchestra into another venue [was essential]. It’s not the first time these things have been done. I’ve experienced this in other cities with different operas – the last time I saw it done was with Reimann’s Lear, where the orchestra was actually put behind the stage. I don’t think it works, though – for me it’s almost as though you are looking at a picture and the perspective is backwards; the aural perspective becomes turned around the wrong way. It’s an interesting idea not to discount the works in the repertoire or to compromise the orchestration too much. The thinking behind it was probably right but the venue is hugely problematic and until that’s addressed there’s a whole slab of the repertoire that the company has to struggle to perform.
The Ring, for example? Well, that’s out of the question. They’re going to do that in Melbourne and even in Melbourne they have problems because with the growing demands of health and safety there are issues. I remember in 1996 I did Frau ohne Schatten in Melbourne and we had 107 musicians down there [in the pit] and I think with the changes in the health and safety laws over the years the maximum you are allowed now is about 85. The problem is just the quality of the venue and the safety of the environment the musicians are in. Particularly in Sydney, it is a complete disaster. There have been numerous attempts over the years to try and make it better, to try and improve it, and all credit to those musicians. That’s a fantastic orchestra, they work ridiculously hard – on the rare occasions when they are taken out of the pit and you hear them play somewhere else people are astonished. I would say they loose a good 40% of the quality of their sound simply by playing in that dreadful pit. So, okay, that’s the first problem facing the company. The second problem is that they have huge financial constraints. Every artistic decision has to be tempered by financial considerations. Of course, that’s the case the world over, but it’s particularly extreme in Australia. Is it the same in New Zealand?
Very much so, I’m afraid. Our present government is the most arts- unaware government you can imagine. Well, that’s tragic. I just think it’s so shortsighted. The problem facing the arts is that any investment in the arts is not going to bear fruit within that political cycle; therefore it’s not a politically popular agenda. And yet if you look at the size of the budget that the arts take up, almost anywhere in the world, in most places you are talking about less than 2% of the national budget, which means that making cuts within the [government’s] arts budget is not going to make a damned [difference to] the national deficit or the general state of the economy. [Arts funding] is a long-term investment. It really is as simple as that – the arts are good for us, they are good for the way we think, they are good for the way we behave, they are good for the way we develop. They are easy to cut in the short term because you think, “I’ll cancel this particular thing for the next three years and if there’s a bit more money available in a couple of years further down the track we can always reinstate it.” It never works like that; once something is gone, trying to rebuild it or restart it takes 10 times as much effort and usually four times as much money. It is something that has to be kept going, something that has to develop. It drives me insane. The arts are no different to sport; they may not have perhaps the same wide across-society appeal, but they do the same thing for a huge sector of our youth that sport also does. Therefore investment in it is a long-term investment in the kind of citizens you want to produce in your country.
CATHEDRAL OF SOUND, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simone Young, sponsored by the Listener, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, August 17; Auckland Town Hall, August 18.