The world of opera is full of excitement and unpredictability. So when Antonio Pappano had to bow out from his November dates conducting Wagner and R. Strauss at the San Francisco Symphony due to a scheduling conflict, Simone Young got the call to fill in.
Young’s SFS debut in April “went extremely well. Still, this return visit so soon is a bit of a surprise; we had to lever it into my only free week in the fall. I’m being driven straight from a concert in Manchester [England] down to Heathrow for my flight. Once I land in San Francisco I’ll have twenty-four hours to get over jetlag before getting down to work. But it’s some of my favorite repertoire and I was desperately keen to help out. And I’ve done Die Walküre with all three of these singers (soprano Emily Magee, tenor Stuart Skelton, and bass Ain Anger) separately, in Berlin, Hamburg, and Vienna, but this Act I will be the first time we’ve all done it together.”
It’s all about the preparation. Young cut her teeth in European opera houses as a repetiteur. These rehearsal pianists are crucial, plowing through score after score, sometimes for weeks, with the actual orchestra only joining rehearsals a few days before opening night. “It’s the old-fashioned way of learning how to be a conductor. Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Christian Thielemann, Tony Pappano, Fabio Luisi; we all came from the rehearsal room. Eventually you get to conduct the offstage horns or trumpets in something. Then sooner or later, you get the chance to be in the pit and you’re off and running.
“When I came to conduct my first performance of Die Walküre, in December 1996 at Covent Garden, it was with a stellar cast. I had no orchestral rehearsal whatsoever. Under any other circumstances that would be physically impossible. But in the fifteen years leading up to that, I had played the score on the piano; I had coached numerous singers; I had rehearsed these particular singers, and had conducted rehearsals and a second act for Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth. I had been in there doing everything but lifting the stick in a performance.”
Young is looking forward to “lifting the stick” with the San Francisco Symphony in music she loves.
“[Act I of Die Walküre] is probably the most lyrical and completely rounded single act of the entire Ring Cycle. It’s glorious music, essentially one long duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde, briefly interrupted by the appearance of the baddie Hunding. It’s also one of the rare acts of the whole Cycle that’s full of love and hope, as opposed to despair and ‘end of the world’ stuff. It’s essentially two people falling in love and then discovering [spoiler alert!] that they’re twins.
“You’ll hear the most important motifs [recurring musical themes]. The ‘Sword’ motif is put out there in neon lights for us. You get the ‘Love’ motif and Hunding’s quite threatening motif; you really don’t need to know anything about the Ring to be able to work out exactly what’s going on. Plus, these three extraordinary singers know their roles so well, they’ll bring the dramatic presence of the stage to the concert hall.”
Written in the waning days of the Second World War, R. Strauss’s Metamorphosen is “a fragile and at the same time deeply expressive work. It couldn’t be more different from the large-scale Walküre; Metamorphosen is scored for twenty-three solo strings. There are whole slabs of the score where everybody is playing a different line. Sometimes it sounds like a full orchestra, but in other places it’s basically a string quartet. It’s full of sadness and nostalgia for a world that’s been lost. The night before Strauss began work on the final version [it took him just one month to complete], the Vienna State Opera was destroyed in a bombing. I think there’s a definite connection to that in the piece. There’s also a tie to Goethe, who used the word ‘metamorphosen’ to describe his thought processes. Of course, World War II had worked monumental changes (metamorphoses) across Europe. And there’s the fact that at this point, Strauss was getting near the end of his life. But he never really explained the title, so we’re free to interpret the work as we like.”
Of course, Simone Young will be interpreting both the Strauss and the Wagner as she likes, and she’s really looking forward to these performances. “It’s extremely interesting programming. We’re in for an intensely theatrical experience.”
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. This article first appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony, and is used with permission.