Why there are no music directors down under

Why there are no music directors down under


norman lebrecht

December 16, 2019

The title given to Simone Young at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will be Chief Conductor. It’s the same as her predecessors, the same as other music institutions in Australia.

They don’t like Music Director, apparently. It might conflict with the powers wielded by the board and chief executive.

There is a similar situation with concertmasters, whose contract is held at the discretion of the executive director and can be terminated at six months’ notice either side.

The latest to go is Adelaide Symphony’s Natsuko Yoshimoto, after ten years in a seat that – in other countres – is usually for life. In Australia there’s a high churn of concertmasters due to lack of security.

Simone Young has spent ten years as Generalmusikdirektor in Hamburg, part of the time as executive director of the opera house as well. She knows the set up, having briefly been chief conductor at the Sydney Opera House from 2001 to 2003. It will be interesting to see how she copes with the power vacuum that may be responsible for Australia’s slow rate of musical progress.



  • C Porumbescu says:

    There’s no defined, universal meaning for these chief conductor job descriptions – “Music Director”, “Principal Conductor” etc just mean whatever the individual organisations want them to mean at any given point. I’m not convinced that anything of much significance can be read into them.

  • fflambeau says:

    “It will be interesting to see how she copes with the power vacuum that may be responsible for Australia’s slow rate of musical progress.”

    And your source for this dubious claim is?

    I think if anything has negatively impacted Australia it is its distance from Europe and the USA and its role as a colony.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      There are airplanes these days, and the long-haul non-stop flights mean it no longer takes 6 weeks by ship. And, of course, they’re not masted sail boats now either.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Australia’s isolation means that it is difficult to get guest conductors in for a week. And that the chief conductor finds it difficult to guest conduct elsewhere for a week. Long-haul flights take too long to do this comfortably.

  • SJ says:

    I’m not so sure it is this power vacuum as much as the curse of distance that impacts the rate of musical progress in Australia.

    You also fail to make any mention of the recent reshuffle of Australian Government portfolios, in which the Department of the Arts has been merged (unnamed) into the “Mega-Department” of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications – a decision which only highlights the apathy of the powers-that-be to the importance of the Arts in this country.

    Ultimately this appointment is phenomenally positive for Sydney and for music in Australia. Our finest conductor is returning home to lead arguably the strongest orchestra. On stage the pairing is absolutely electric and knowing Simone well, her impact on the orchestra will be immense.

    8 weeks a year is clearly a compromise that allowed Sydney the opportunity to secure a fantastic leader, while allowing Young the freedom to continue engaging with major organisations in Europe and the US as her career blossoms. Win Win for both.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Oh, so everything affecting Australia’s musical progress has changed just within the last fortnight!! I hadn’t realized. Monash University has shut its music faculty and I’m sure that’s the fault of this government too.

  • Not Boris Johnson says:

    By Sydney Opera I think you mean Opera Australia. At the risk of seeming picky, if an article cannot get right major details like names of organisations, then one tends to wonder about the level of knowledge on the journalist’s part. For instance, if I read in a newspaper that the Prime Minister of Great England lived at 10 Downing Road, I would be inclined to the conclusion that the author didn’t really know their stuff. In the case of this blog and the Australian musical scene, this is a conclusion reached regularly by many of us who do know what we’re talking about.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      At the time, as far as I recall, it was known as the Sydney Opera House. The OA title came later.

      • MWnyc says:

        The company was referred to as the Australian Opera. Sydney Opera House is strictly the name of the venue.

      • Angela says:

        Opera Australia was previously known as The Australian Opera (until 1996 when it merged with Victorian State Opera).

        When Simone Young was [drum roll] Music Director (2001–2003) the company was well established as Opera Australia.

        Yes, one of the company’s principal venues is the Sydney Opera House, but Simone Young was never “chief conductor of the Sydney Opera House” as the article currently reads. In fact the Sydney Opera House, as a venue, has never had a chief conductor nor any need of one.

  • Marj says:

    Frankly I don’t think a title will make the slightest difference to the standard of music in Aust. Having lived overseas for 20+ years before returning 7 years ago I think the standard of music in a country with next to no Govt support of the arts and the tyranny of distance is actually pretty damn good compared with overseas orchestras and ensembles I heard in that period.

    • MacroV says:

      I can only say I heard the Melbourne Symphony in Washington DC a few weeks ago and they sounded like a fine band; if I lived in Melbourne I would certainly go hear them regularly. Whatever they call the position, I hope they find a good successor to Sir Andrew; who wouldn’t want to spend 3-4 months a year in a place as lovely as Melbourne?

  • Janitor says:

    Drink that cum!!!

  • Thom says:

    First, in 2015 the Queensland Symphony Orchestra named Alondra de la Parra as their…
    Music Director

    Amusingly, when they did so they made more noise about the title (“First music director of an Australian symphony orchestra!!!”) than about the fact that she was the first woman to be the chief of a major Australian symphony orchestra. Which was really kind of quaint, because all they had done was adopt the American equivalent (Music Director) for the more common title in Australia: Chief Conductor and Artistic Director. The music director role as the QSO described it was precisely that – the chief conductor and the artistic director.

    So you’re doubly wrong to say Australia has no music directors.
    1/ There have been at least three to have held that literal title: Simone Young at OA, Alondra de la Parra at QSO, and Nicolette Fraillon who is Music Director and Chief Conductor at the Australian Ballet. Possibly there are others.
    2/ And there have been plenty to have held the music director role, albeit under the more common Australian title, since the 1980s/90s at least.

    Your post fails to recognise that there are different nomenclatures for this kind of role around the world, even within English-speaking countries.

    It further fails in basic research, since it claims something that even five minutes on wikipedia would have proven false.

  • Brendan Joyce says:

    “Australia’s slow rate of musical.progress”. Ok, I’ll bite. You’d surely have to make the effort to come this country and hear its music making to be in any position to make such an authoritative statement. Beware of hegemonic thinking and attitudes.

  • Doug Grant says:

    The Australian Opera has no music director. Since the late Richard Hickox, the AO has effectively determined that the conductor is essentially irrelevant in opera. Rarely is the conductor mentioned when an opera is advertised. In reviews, you might be lucky to see a mention of the conductor. There is rarely any sense in which it is the conductor’s vision that has ensured the success of a performance.

    With the symphony orchestras, it is rare to see the conductor mentioned in advertising, especially if the chief conductor is not performing. It is essentially assumed that the public does not know about conductors. It is assumed that the public only cares about the music to be performed, and that the conductor’s approach to the music is irrelevant.

    There is very little to be excited about the Australian orchestral scene. Few seem to be waiting with baited breath to see who the next chief conductors will be in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide. Think of recent exciting appointments made in Europe – Rouvalli, Shani, Emelyanychev, Makela, Grazinyte-Tyla. I don’t think that here in Australia we are expecting anything like that. In fact, people don’t know these young conductors. In Melbourne, Stanislav Kochanovsky has impressed twice, and is returning in 2020. Might he be appointed chief conductor? There seems to be little appetite to appoint someone with ideas (radical or otherwise), who might actually take the lead and shape an organisation. As Norman Lebrecht suggests, CEOs and Board Chairs probably don’t want that. Go to a Melbourne Symphony concert, and try to count the number of younger people there (even use 40 as the upper limit). You will probably succeed – there are so few. Now imagine what a Maxim Emelyanychev might be able to do.