Heading to Adelaide to conduct Mahler’s Sixth Symphony for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Simone Young discusses how she will direct the monumental work.
One of the most terrifying moments in orchestral music happens deep into the fourth movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Three ‘hammer blows’ representing fate come crashing down to annihilate humanity’s hopes and all the work’s preceding loveliness – its soaring ‘Alma theme’ (which reputedly represented his wife Alma), cowbells and lullabies. Mahler didn’t specify how the sound should be made – he just writes ‘hammer’ in the score’, and the solution is often to strike a large wooden box with a maul or sledgehammer. However, he was quite specific on how it should sound: “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” It’s quite something to witness when it happens. Perplexingly though, Mahler couldn’t make up his mind on just how many hammer blows there should be. Initially he wanted three, but later revised it down to two and later one. Conjecture has it that he feared the number three would presage his own death. But fearless conductors today often choose the full quota, as Simone Young will do when she conducts this work with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in July. “I always perform the work with the three hammer blows, the three ‘blows of Fate’ that interrupt the progress of our Hero, and finally fell him as he arrives at the pinnacle,” Young says. But she advises against giving these hammer blows too much attention: “considering this is to examine the end state without embarking on the journey that has brought us there,” she says. That journey is personified in Mahler’s experiences at the time of composing the Sixth: his controversial dismissal from the Vienna State Opera, the death of his five-year-old daughter, Maria, and the onset of his own fatal heart condition. “It is a symphony that one cannot perform, or witness, for that matter, without being drawn into a passionate and deeply emotional world,” Young says. “This is probably the symphony which has fascinated me most in the last 20 years. It demands virtuosity from the orchestra, expansive vision from the conductor and commands great focus from the audience. Mahler dispenses with the voices and texts which dominated his earlier symphonies, drawing as they do on the material from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Instead he bathes us in colours, harmonies and landscapes – and with the paradoxes with which his life was littered.” The Sixth is indeed a mighty creation. Its final movement, alone running to half an hour, is for Young “a monumental structure which for any other composer of his time would have been an independent Tone-Poem and not part of a greater whole”. A lot has changed since we last saw Young in Adelaide, in 2011, when she conducted Schubert’s Ninth. Her decade-long posts at the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmoniker Hamburg wound up last year, and now she finds herself increasingly back in this country and once again feted by Opera Australia, with whom she had a stormy falling out in 2002. Along with Mahler, this visit sees her conduct another work she particularly loves, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”. The mysteries only get bigger with this work. Why Schubert abandoned it after writing the first two glorious movements is of course one, but Young doesn’t want to dwell on that. “I find Schubert’s “Unfinished” to be a work of great intensity and also of overwhelming tenderness,” she says. “Anyone with some imagination can come up with a plausible reason as to why it was left unfinished, but I prefer not to indulge in such pointless speculation, but rather to examine the work as it stands, and to find a logic, if unorthodox, in its structure.”
Gustav Mahler statue in the old city of Ljubljana, Slovenia
Central in this was Schubert’s idea of combining the idea of song into symphonic language. In the same year in which he worked on this symphony, 1822, his song output accelerated. Says Young: “I think it is always essential with Schubert to be very familiar with his exquisite song cycles and that these provide the clue: there are often insistent and repetitive piano figures accompanying subtle and highly expressive melodic vocal lines – and it is the challenge for the artist to allow the melodic phrasing to influence the rhythmic figures”. Out of a deeply uncertain, agitated first movement, a sunlit slow movement arises; but this too contains chills of despair. Here Schubert’s song writing also makes itself felt, Young believes. “The slow movement is also a relatively expansively structured movement for its time, but the elegant yearning of the solo lines shape a very organic form. Once again, simple rhythmic figures underpin some of Schubert’s loveliest symphonic melodic writing, and frankly, the conductor should not really get in the way of the almost chamber-musical simplicity of the orchestration.” The orchestral world is so used to this repertoire being the preserve of male conductors that Young finds herself still mostly alone as a female on the podium. Recently other female conductors such as Nicolette Fraillon from the Australian Ballet have come vociferously against sexism in classical music, but Young chooses instead to stand back from such debate and let her baton do the talking. “I am in no doubt that there is still a long way to achieving a level playing-ground in the world of conducting and composition,” she says. “I do not however see my role as that of an evangelist – I believe the most eloquent statement that I can make is simply to continue to strive to present moving interpretations of the great works I am privileged to conduct. I hope that in doing so, I can provide inspiration to talented young musicians, irrespective of their gender.” ASO, Simone Young & Mahler Great Classics 3 Festival Theatre Saturday, July 23 aso.com.au