Knowing the Score

Director: Janine Hosking
Starring: Simone Young
Distributor: Sharmill Films
Runtime: 89 mins. Reviewed in Feb 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Infrequent mild coarse language

Australia’s Simone Young has been an international orchestra conductor for several decades, a pioneer for women conductors. A portrait and a tribute.

Simone Young is a well-known name in the music world – an international conductor, a woman who broke the glass ceiling in terms of women conductors, an Australian achiever whose talent is appreciated worldwide. But, it is said that life was not meant to be easy, and Simone Young’s career path was not always an easy road.

The title is ironically enjoyable. Simone Young has a pitch-perfect ear and associates colours with the notes she hears. She has a detailed knowledge of so many scores and so many operas (Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, Verdi, Benjamin Britten . . . Her appreciation of techniques and sensitivities in performance are extensively treated in this interesting and entertaining documentary. But, with hard experiences, in Europe, in Australia, especially her sacking in Sydney, in 2001, experience has taught her to know the score.

Audiences who have seen Cate Blanchett as the conductor, Lydia Tar, found that the world of orchestras and, especially, conductors, was opened up in more detail than they might have imagined. Tar was the fictional version of enormous talent, complicated personal life, demonstration of abilities and exercise of power. To that extent, the life of Simone Young is something of a relief.

By the end of the film, we have a satisfying brief biography of Sydney-born Simone Young, her association with conductors of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, marriage and daughters, studying in Europe, and opportunities in Europe, Berlin and Vienna. Then the appointment in Sydney, the sacking, her return to Europe, 10 years in Hamburg reinforcing her reputation, and, finally, the call back to Sydney as conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – a fulfilment of dreams to conduct at the Sydney Opera House which she had passed countless times in the ferry as she grew up in Manly.

And then Covid happened. When audiences watch films set in 2020, there is an automatic stirring of memories and how we all lived the lockdown of that year. With no opera, Simone spent a lot of time with quite talented knitting, which strongly features during the final credits, and the refurbishment of the concert hall at the Opera House. Ultimately, there is the concert and the inauguration of the new concert hall and its acoustics, with Mahler and Indigenous focus, composer William Barton (Queensland Australian of the Year, 2023), children, singers (and in glimpsing the orchestra, multicultural performers).

And, for opera lovers, the documentary is interspersed with numerous musical interludes, audiences delighting in listening to the music, but also observing Simone Young and her conducting.

There are a number of interesting interviews throughout the film, including from conductor Daniel Barenboim, the ABC Music Show’s Andrew Ford, music critics and opera managers.

So, the movie is a brief biography, character portrait (praise and critique), musical portrait, and a tribute to a significant international Australian.

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