The Passion and Conviction of Art

Address by Simone Young. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

Conductor Simone Young gave the following address on the occasion of being awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Griffith University.

Simone Young. Photo by Klaus Lefebvre.  mf191youngActing Chancellor, Henry Smerdon, Vice Chancellor & President, Professor Ian O’Connor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and Graduates:

‘Tradition ist nicht das Anbeten der Asche – es ist das Weiterleiten der Flamme‘ – ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, it is the passing on of the Flame‘ – these words of Gustav Mahler have become a motto for me. To reach the understanding that tradition has its origin in the past but its purpose in the future has taken me years of studying, listenting to and performing the great masterpieces of the symphonic and operatic repertoires.

For me, music is the most intense of art forms – it appeals to the heart and to the intellect at the same time. The mind appreciates the poetry of structure while the heart cannot fail to be moved by its sheer beauty. The magical softenss of a change of harmony may steal our breath or leave us overwhelmed by the power of a massed orchestra and a choir. A single voice, deeply moving in its innocence and simplicity, can liberate us from time and place – music vibrates, captivates and elevates. The ancient Greeks knew it – Hades himself was charmed by Orpheus; the churchmen of the middle ages knew it – the people could not understand the latin of the prayers, but were aided in their devotion by the power of the polyphony.

And opera? That hopelessly unrealistic theatrical form that has dying consumptives singing 10-minute arias and for which a genius such as Verdi can create an entire duet from the word ‘Addio!’ (look it up – Act I, scene 2 of Rigoletto!) – how is it that this crazy, implausible, impossible art form can draw such passionate responses from its audience?

Music can do that for us every day – we can go to a concert and expect beauty, excitement and passion. Of all the art forms it is the most ephemeral – each moment expires almost as we experience it.

I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by musical sounds. I was fortunate to grow up in a family where my interest was nurtured and I was exceptionally lucky to be taught by a series of inspired and committed teachers who were able to feed my curiosity and guide a passionate if rather unorthodox talent. My interests were too wide and I had no intention of limiting my experiences to just one instrument or narrowing my academic interest to just one period of musical composition.

I have always had an abhorrence of fanaticism of any kind – fanaticism is passion without reason or humour. Music demands curiosity, passion, reason and humour. Study Beethoven, but go to concerts of baroque and contemporary music too; become a baroque specialist but listen to Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Messiaen, Sculthorpe, Dean and Ades; wonder at the marvel that is the Tristan chord but occasionally turn the radio dial in the car to a jazz or a commercial station – be informed, be open, embrace the humanity of art.

I think that would be my message to the graduates tonight, whatever the discipline they have studied. Stay informed, always be open and embrace the humanity in your walk of life.

It is the responsibility of every artist to ensure opportunities for the development of the following generation – and it is not just a responsibility, it is a privilege. I am here in Brisbane this week to work with the wonderfully talented members of the Australian Youth Orchestra. I often wonder who gains the most from these occasions – the students who can profit professionally and artistically from the experience I bring to the work we do together, or me, myself, in the inspiration I find in these young, corageous musicians, who have dedicated most of their youth to excelling at their particular instrument and who now face a rewarding but uncertain future as a professional musician. Full of hope and expectation, they face their challenges, both artistic and personal. One can almost hear them saying ‘bring it on, we’re ready for it’.

Would it not be an exciting future that we would all face together if that could be everyone’s approach? ‘Bring it on, I’m ready for it’ – to have the confidence and courage to expect success? On Friday we will see the world’s elite athletes gather in hope and expectation and Australia will be one of many nations who put angst and fear of the future on hold and glory in the achievements of these young men and women. The young musicians of the Australian Youth Orchestra move me in the same way.

It is when I contemplate the excitement we share in the accomplishments of these young people, I must shake my head in bewilderment at the short-sightedness of a political agenda that cuts funds from youth arts projects. I understand only too well the realities of fiscal rationalisation and know that the moment you start a discussion that pits class sizes or kindergarten places versus arts projects the arts will lose every time. Investment in the arts is a long-term strategy. Investment in artistic endeavour, be it a school brass band, a writer, a young dancer or an aspiring star instrumentalist – this is investment in the future of our society. Music is a powerful tool of civilisation: Daniel Barenboim has demonstrated this with his East-West Divan orchestra which has Israeli and Arab youth working, rehearsing and performing together: in South America the ‘Sistema’ program of orchestral playing for youth has not only produced the world-star Gustavo Dudamel, it has taken poor, disadvantaged and disaffected youth off the streets and helped them to find direction and a future.

None of these projects have produced fiscal benefits within a political cycle, or brought glory and profit within the short term – but they have brought life-altering experience to a generation of young people who now have every hope of making their world, or at least their corner of it, better.

How lucky are we to live in Australia? A land of tolerance, of a sense of fair play, with a healthy dose of larrikinism thrown in – very few Australians face the challenges of the Israeli, Arab or South American children. Therefore the potential for benefit through investment in arts and arts education remains a largely untapped and controversial vein of pure gold – it is the potential for an understanding of humanity which much surely be of enormous significance to us all.

We live in the rule of supply and demand – that which we demand will be supplied. Let your voice be heard – the arts must never be allowed to fade in this country or we will suffer a fading of noble sentiments and humanitarian vision as well.

Passion is the flame that fires our endeavours – and artistic tradition provides the structure and technique with which to give a voice to that flame.

I am most honoured to be accorded this award by Griffith University. I am equally honoured to be addressing you – fellow graduates, distinguised faculty and guests, but the greatest honour that I have is to be privileged to carry the flame of passion and conviction and to hand it on to those who wish to follow a life in Art.

Australian conductor Simone Young is the chief executive at the Hamburg State Opera and chief conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic.