by Christine Westwood

There is a promotional ad for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert of their 2023 season (Sydney Opera House, 8-11 February). The key image isn’t the Orchestra but Chief Conductor Simone Young. Dressed in black, on a dark background, face and hands highlighted. She holds no baton, her gesture is both embracing and supplicating, her expression passionate and focussed. She is the Maestro, the one who holds the orchestra in her interpretation of the composer’s score, in this case, Mahler’s First.

In July last year, the Orchestra showcased Mahler’s Second, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, appropriately, as the concert celebrated a rebuild of the Concert Hall and Young’s own restoration after being sacked halfway through her tenure as music director in 2003.

The opera board cited differences between artistic vision and the company budget. The dismissal and 2022 comeback are explored in depth in the new documentary on Young, Knowing the Score. In fact, the documentary builds its story arc to make the 2022 concert its climax. Following Young through rehearsals and a nerve-wracking opening night, it’s an effective way to showcase the Maestro’s extraordinary talents.

Director Janine Hosking is no stranger to classical music documentaries. She won various awards for The Eulogy, tagged ‘The untold story of Australia’s greatest classical pianist’ (Geoffrey Tozer).

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett is executive producer, a perfect fit given her current larger than life screen performance as conductor Lydia Tar.

There is a wonderfully dry comment from Young, when she was asked by The Sydney Morning Herald whether she thinks Cate Blanchett is a good conductor in her powerful, much researched role.

“If she was acting a brain surgeon, would you ask, ‘Is she a good brain surgeon?’” Young replies. “She’s an excellent actor who’s extremely good at playing a conductor. How about that?”

The comment is a great example of Young’s no-nonsense attitude. To hold the respect and command of some of the greatest orchestras in the world, you can’t mince your words. Young’s criticism in rehearsals is impersonal and direct.

In the documentary, she describes herself as an advocate for the composer, seeing the task as a ‘tremendous responsibility’. We also get an opportunity to see what a conductor actually does. There is the extraordinary skill of shaping and guiding every note by every instrument, the genius of musical acuity – Young herself is gifted with perfect pitch – plus a depth of cultural and historical knowledge that informs the interpretations of the world’s greatest composers, from Bach to Wagner and beyond. Young herself states, “We’re like icebergs, 90% is under the surface because it all happens in the rehearsal room.”

From the film’s opening whimsical illustrations, reflecting Young’s ever-present sense of humour that we see throughout, to the substantial concert and rehearsal segments and the classical music soundtrack, Knowing the Score is, fittingly, immersed in the musical world. It’s fascinating to watch a skill so prodigious up close.

Out of the gate, Young was under the spotlight for being that rare creature, a female conductor. Australian born, of immigrant parents, her career launched at the Sydney Opera House in 1985.

She describes her 4 years as assistant to Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth, in Germany, as being crucial to her career. Barenboim is a great advocate, describing how he was stunned that she achieved a style of conducting that was free of gender specific technique and gestures, apparently no small feat.

In 2001, she took up a position as musical director of the Australian Opera and in 2005 she was appointed general director of the Hamburg State Opera and chief conductor of the Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg. She has conducted at most of the major opera houses in Europe and the USA.

A previous documentary made in 1995 (directed and produced by Margie Bryant for Serendipity Productions) when Young was just 33, highlighted the fascination with her gender as she made a rapid rise to success. 27 years on, it’s a topic she’s heartily sick of, judging by her comments in Knowing the Score.

Yet there’s no denying the impact that her high profile achievements have had in pushing against what she describes as ‘the boys’ club.’

Young is a pioneer among female conductors, being the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera and at the Opera Bastille in Paris. She was also the first woman to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. Watching her at work is electrifying, absorbing. The documentary is largely carried by her presence, warmth, and command. She is compelling to watch yet, she’s no Lydia Tar. As big as her ego needs to be, in the end, it’s all about service to the music.

When she was sacked from Opera Australia, she issued a statement urging opera fans not to cancel their subscriptions to the next season.

“If people want to support me, then the best thing they can do is make sure my performances are full, that all our performances are full.

“The company must not suffer in all of this. If (it) suffers, then this is an even sadder thing than we all feel it is now.”

Following her mentors Leonard Bernstein, Stuart Challender and of course Barenboim, all showcased in the documentary, Young commands the greatest orchestras in the world, including her triumphant return to her much loved Sydney Opera House. She does it with aplomb and in her signature high heels, in this fascinating look at a woman breaking a previously impenetrable glass ceiling. 

Knowing the Score is in cinemas February 16, 2023