Celebrated Australian conductor Simone Young rarely cries in public – and never during an on-camera interview. Knowing The Score get up close and personal with Simone, a woman who has broken so many glass ceilings within the white-male privileged world of classical music.
Knowing The Score is the sequel to The Young One, the 1995 archive documentary depicting a young woman determined to be her best – no
matter what the odds. The footage is a remarkable springboard from which to view the hopes and dreams of an upcoming professional. This archive, interwoven with the trials, tribulations and triumphs that were
to follow, provide a strong and emotionally affecting cinematic story arc.
The film is motivated by Simone‘s planned return to Australia for her appointment is the first female Chief Conductor of the Sydney
Symphony Orchestra in 2022. Knowing The Score catches the build up to, and includes Simone‘s first performance at the reopening of the Sydney Opera House. Emerging from the shadow of COVID-19, the Concert Hall reopens after two years for major restoration with a grand event, resonant performance of “The Mahler 2 – Resurrection Symphony”.
A present-day narrative plays out through observational sequences of Simone at work and away from the podium.
Such is Simone‘s profile, Knowing The Score features footage of Simone with all the great orchestras of the world. These include the Vienna Philharmonic – where she was the first woman to ever conduct the orchestra in 1993 (they didn’t allow women to audition as players until 1997), the Berlin Philharmonic, Paris Opera Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic – whose Chief Conductor Leonard Bernstein inspired 13-year-old Simone to become a conductor upon her first visit to the Sydney Opera House. The film reveals performance footage of Simone creating sublime music with the orchestra as her instrument.
Simone is a compelling character and is joined by a cast of brilliant music makers and engaging witnesses to her life and carreer. Simone‘s career’s many highs and lows go from young trailblazer to a woman midcareer and at the top of her game – until the shock rejection in 2005 from her own country when her contract is not renewed by Opera Australia in a blaze of humiliating headlines and media speculation.
How will she fair this time around at the helm of another of Australia’s major cultural organisations.
A documentary for our times Knowing The Score celebrates and laments the tough but inspiring journey Simone Young has taken as a woman determined to be her best in a male dominated world. She reminds us how artists positively impact society – what after all do we rely on to get us through the toughest times if not music, song and dance?
Celebrated Australian conductor Simone Young rarely cries in public and never in an on-camera interview. Her Roman Catholic schoolgirl background taught her to be rigorous and contained. “A structured mind is a good thing” she says.
But now she is sitting in an empty recording studio and she’s in tears.
COVID-19 has hit the concert halls of the world with such veracity, many wonder if classical music can survive.
Over the past half-century it has endured the Small Pox, Cholera and Spanish Flu. Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the classical music sector with the calamity of the century.
Consequently, there has never been a better time for a documentary about Simone Young. Twenty-five years in the making, producer Margie Bryant has long held a fascination for telling Simone’s story. Back in 1995, Serendipity Productions produced and Margie Bryant directed “The Young One -Portrait of a Conductor” for SBS Television.
This program captures Simone as a young woman with her signature long hair and high heels embarking on an international career in Berlin. Her musical supporter and mentor was the legendary conductor and musician Daniel Barenboim.
Back then music critic Norman Lebrecht stated, “No woman has ever made it on the podium, many have tried, looked like they might make it and for whatever reason have stumbled and fallen. With Simone we will just have to wait and see”.
Thirty years later we revisit Lebrecht’s remark to tell the story of a career that has achieved longevity born of determination and genius whilst overcoming constant challenges based on her gender and nationality.
Simone is now a woman in her sixties with grandchildren, contemplating the next stage of her life during COVID-19 and beyond.
The music has stopped and for Simone the silence is overpowering. Like all her fellow musicians, Simone has to navigate an industry in crisis as the concert halls of the world fall silent. How will COVID-19 change their art?
As she sits in the darkened studio, Simone takes a moment to reflect. In the face of the pandemic and the widespread illness, death and economic crises it brings, what is the role of the artist?
“Do we matter”? she asks as if on the brink of an existential reckoning.
Knowing the Score is an Arts documentary for our time.
The style and themes
Knowing the Score combines interviews with observational footage and a wealth of archival footage, as well as access to Simone’s personal photographs.
Far from being a niche music film designed mainly for classical music fans, my directorial vision for the film is to combine elements of a traditional biopic with an unfolding storyline that has the cumulative effect of exploring classical music in the wake of a pandemic from a deeply personal perspective.
Everywhere you look in today’s cultural life, the face of power is changing.
Perhaps nowhere has the change been more dramatic than in the world of classical music, the most rigidly traditional of the arts. A symphony orchestra after all, is almost the very definition of a hierarchy: a stratified workplace of ranked players, each section under the authority of a principal musician who, in turn, must submit to the ultimate power of the conductor. And the conductor, has almost always been a man.
In the early and formative years of her career in the 1990s, Simone was depicted by the mainstream media as a trailblazer who infiltrated the boy’s club of conducting, and shattered the glass ceiling of her profession. Much comment was made about her propensity to wear high heels on the podium. Her fresh sexuality was a marketing tool that attracted tabloid Current Affairs programs such as 60 Minutes to bring the story of her achievements to a large television audience, normally not interested in classical music.
Industry stalwarts, whilst impressed by her art, still questioned if her career would sustain. Was she the real deal?
As a young woman she played along with this one dimensional view of her achievements, but these days, Simone the mature musical matriarch has less tolerance for the inevitable questions about her being “a woman conductor”.
It’s a big moment in her career but not a glorious one. But the momentary fall from grace leads her to becoming a stronger artist; “less needy for approval”.
In our collection of archive footage from 1996 there is an interview with Simone for the award-winning Channel 9 Midday Show, then hosted by Kerrie-Anne Kennerley. Simone’s welcome to the show is preceded by a musical introduction of Helen Reddy’s famous feminist anthem “I Am Woman”. It blasts out as Simone enters the studio to the applause of an admiring audience.
Today she cringes at the memory. “I will talk about the woman thing, but only up to a certain point. I feel it diminishes me. I am not a woman conductor. I am a conductor”.
Again she repeats her refrain from the 2017 article: “Gender is of no importance to my profession.” Yet with gentle coaxing Simone does open up about the “Boy’s Club” and “Sexism.” Fired up and somewhat exasperated she exclaims, “What does being a woman have to do with conducting? My tits don’t get in the way”.
Simone’s career is by no means linear. It has had many highs and lows in which she goes from trailblazer to a woman mid-career and at the top of her game, until the shock rejection from her own country when her contract is not renewed by Opera Australia.
The three act structure of the film is assisted by Simone’s planned return to Australia for her appointment as the Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2022. But just when it looked as her homecoming would be triumphant COVID-19 hit with a vengeance.
We film the build up to the opening performance, whilst at the same time tracking the restoration of the Sydney Opera House concert hall. The observational moments of the film will be enhanced by Simone’s planning and rehearsal process.
The artistic process
The role of the conductor and Simone’s unique way of explaining music allows the film to explore the artistic process in a way that it is insightful and exciting to a mainstream audience.
“I think I’m just a conduit. I’m trying to translate what I see on the page, what I understand of the composer’s intentions and make that audible and tangible to the musicians and to the public.”
The music that Simone hears in her head as she reads and interprets notes on the page is something she describes as “magical”.
As Simone explains: “Well, I mean, it’s an area that fascinates me, the kind of mystical element of the communication, this idea that the communication between conductor and orchestra is actually one that’s based on trust and more on trust than on will power. And yet there’s a certain amount that is obviously comes from sort of the intensity of the will and intention of the conductor to convey a phrase in a particular way. And there are all these, I mean the last 20 years there’ve been many, many studies done about the physical and mental benefits of music, how it can actually heal us and I think that’s interesting. But I’m an instrument, I mean; I’m a musician whose instrument is the orchestra, that’s what I do”.
“The role of the conductor is probably one of the least understood jobs, activities in the arts world at all. I mean you can see a singer does, you see what a violinist does; what is the conductor doing? It’s one of those things that when children pretend to conduct, they’ll be playing music and they’ll be conducting along with the music, but that’s not what a conductor does. You’re not actually conducting what you’re hearing; you’re instigating what everybody else is about to hear”.
We incorporate a rich vein of material to chart Simone’s rise as a young artist and beyond. The footage from Serendipity Production’s first film is a remarkable springboard in which to weave the hopes and dreams of an upcoming artist with the trials, tribulations and triumphs which were to follow later in life, providing a strong and emotionally affecting cinematic story arc.