The call came at the 11th hour: Simone Young was needed at the New York Philharmonic to conduct Mahler’s massive 90-minute Sixth Symphony, filling in for Music Director Jaap van Zweden, who had injured his shoulder.
It was April 2019, and Ms. Young, who has a busy schedule in Europe, was enjoying a rare long holiday weekend. “My first reaction was, it’s not possible,” she recalls, speaking by phone from her home in the English countryside. “Then we juggled things around, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane. I arrived in New York late on Monday night and started rehearsing the next morning.”
The Philharmonic had already announced that the Australian-born conductor—known for her performances of Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, and other Romantic composers—would be conducting the Philharmonic at the end of this month, January 30–February 1. But those April concerts instead marked the first time since her October 1998 debut that she would return to the Orchestra’s podium. The musicians were impressed.
“Mahler Six is a monumental work to prepare under the best of circumstances,” says Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples. “Ms. Young clearly knew the piece inside and out and immediately drew the Orchestra in with her commanding presence. She was also incredibly organized in her rehearsal strategy, and her interpretation was very satisfying. Musicians and audience were in good hands!”
This month Ms. Young returns with an entirely different program: Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, the New York Premiere of a Cello Concerto by fellow Australian Brett Dean, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. “The central point of my repertoire is German Romantic,” she explains. “Dean and Elgar are both composers heavily influenced by the German Romantic and its traditions of music-making. I’ve performed a good deal of Brett’s music, and his concerto is an impressive work. And Britten is also central to my repertoire; I’m now conducting his A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Vienna Staatsoper. It all seemed to go together—related, yet very different works.” She has worked frequently with the award-winning German cellist Alban Gerhardt, who will play the Dean work, and who will be her soloist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra prior to these Philharmonic appearances.
Simone Young has received numerous awards and honors. She was artistic director of the Hamburg Staatsoper and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, from August 2005 to the end of the 2014–15 season, where she conducted a wide range of operas, including works by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, and Henze. She has conducted at the world’s leading opera houses, including The Metropolitan Opera and regularly appears at those in Berlin, Munich, Zurich, and Vienna. She is currently principal guest conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, and has worked with numerous orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic orchestras, and various ensembles in Australia—a country where she maintains a continuing presence.
In her free time, which isn’t much given her busy guest-conducting schedule, she enjoys watching cricket, which she has never played but finds fascinating and “slow-moving enough so that you can get a little study done on the side.” She is a prolific reader as well as a former scuba diver, who recalls the experience of seeing giant sting rays and singing whales as she explored the Great Barrier Reef. And she has resumed knitting after a long hiatus. “I find it incredibly relaxing, productive, and focusing,” she says. “I’m a terrible insomniac. I’m up to date on Netflix. I call it Knitflix—knitting and watching Netflix at the same time. It’s great for jet lag!”
As for the New York Philharmonic, she recalls her Mahler experience last April with obvious pleasure. “The musicians played fabulously,” she says, “and I’m looking forward to my return.”
Lucy Kraus, the former Senior Publications Editor at the Philharmonic, has written for The New York Times and other publications.