Wednesday night at the storied Philharmonie concert hall, Australian conductor Simone Young became the first woman in almost a generation to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Filling in for ailing guest conductor Mariss Jansons, Young led the first of four concerts this week with the orchestra, which is widely regarded as one of the finest musical ensembles in the world.
Young elicited a rich, colorful and magisterial sound from the orchestra, moving confidently through a challenging program that included Paul Hindemith's symphony "Mathis der Maler" and Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In each work, the orchestra responded to Young's direction with its refined brand of precision, sweep and fluency.
The Berliners responded with three ovations.
Many German and Austrian orchestras have histories of hostility toward women. The little-known Swiss conductor Sylvia Caduff was the last woman to lead the Berlin Philharmonic, in October 1978. Before that, the last woman to conduct the orchestra was the now largely forgotten Giovanna di Bella, in June 1941.
In an interview on the eve of the concert, the historic achievement was news to Young. "Really?" she genially interjected during a question about how she felt to be in the rare position. "It only figures in my mind because my mother likes collecting those statistics," she says. "For me, it's a week with a wonderful orchestra and a chance to do some of my favorite music."
Over the past several months, such milestones have become something of a routine for Young. In mid-November, she became the first women to lead the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin orchestra's equally renowned yet more discriminatory counterpart.
And in August, Young assumed a commanding position over the musical life of a major German city that is almost unheralded for any conductor, man or woman, in Europe. Young serves as general manager and musical director of the State Opera in Hamburg, giving her full discretion to set the artistic direction of the house. Her previous directorship at Opera Australia ended stormily two years ago. Audiences adored her but her ambitious plans for the company were rejected by the opera's board as too expensive.
Young says she has learned how to overcome the sexism she has "fairly regularly" encountered since she began conducting in Europe in the mid-1980s. "I think I got past that based on the breadth and intensity that I bring to my repertoire," she says. "I like to think that the big majority of musicians view me as a conductor in her forties whom they are meeting for the first time, rather than a woman conductor."
Because of her work in Berlin in the 1990s at the Berlin State Opera, audiences and musicians in the city have had ample time to get to know Young.
When the Berlin Philharmonic called less than a week ago to ask if she would fill in, the artist and orchestra were already in the midst of negotiating a conducting date for the 2007-08 season.
"I am deeply, totally Australian in my attitudes and the way I deal with people," she says. "But I have basically been immersed in the German music culture since I came here in 1986. . . . There is something about this German-Austrian sound that has a substance and weight that is almost three-dimensional. I just love moving through these sorts of scores."
The accelerated engagement seemed like a natural part of the ensemble's ongoing transformation since Simon Rattle became musical director three seasons ago. The highly regarded British conductor has encouraged personnel changes that have made the group far more youthful and cosmopolitan. Sixteen of the Philharmonic's 118 players are now women, and the orchestra recently appointed its first woman as general manager, the American opera administrator Pamela Rosenberg.
Young says she has enjoyed the give-and-take of rehearsals. "The orchestra is my instrument to play, and to be given one of the greatest instruments in the world is a tremendous honor and privilege."
She says this chance is particularly gratifying because her family originally advised her against pursuing a musical career, suggesting she become a lawyer. "I come from a completely different environment, and debuting in Vienna or Berlin is something that you never actually expect to experience."
In 2002, she told the Los Angeles Times that she got her start almost inadvertently at a Catholic school in Sydney. "I went to convent school, all girls, which was actually quite good," she recalled. "I was writing musicals and putting them on myself, conducting from the piano. I was conducting long before I realized that's what I was doing." Young made several successful appearances in the United States in the late 1990s with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.
Young said she has no plans to conduct again in the United States soon, citing her extensive commitments in Hamburg.