New Zealander to conduct the best of Russia

From the Hutt Valley to conducting some of Russia’s finest musicians, it’s been quite some journey for Rachael Young. She talks to JOSH REICH.


Rachael Young

TO the uninitiated, conducting may look like a random assortment of facial tics, flailing arms and pointing with a stick.

To those in the know however, it’s a skill that can take a life-time to master.

That select group includes New Zealander Rachel Young, who next month leads the Russian Virtuosi of Europe, consisting of some of the best Russian-trained musicians working in London, in playing music by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Schnittke.

Young grew up in the Hutt Valley, but has lived for the last 18 years in London, pursuing her love of music and working towards her goal of becoming a professional conductor.

“It’s such a complex art form, there are so many things having to come together to do it well,” she says of her passion. “I find that sense of endlessness really inspiring and really challenging.”


Young came from a non-musical family, but from a young age had always been captivated by orchestral music.

She also always wanted to become a conductor, but rather than go down the traditional route of piano, she instead picked up the cello, earning herself a scholarship to the Boston Conservatory after graduating with a music degree from Victoria University, and then playing with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

“The first time I heard an orchestra, the NZSO actually, we were taken on a school music trip and I just loved it, I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, and that’s where the bug started really. The possibilities for sound and the expressiveness of the orchestra, the loud voracity of it, then the calmness.”

She then moved to London, where she balanced work as a nanny with musical studies with the likes of William Pleeth and Moray Welsh.


She continued her cello development, before deciding to change direction and work towards her ultimate goal of becoming a conductor.

In 2008 she travelled to Estonia to learn from the highly respected Neeme Jarvi and his son Paavo, before successfully auditioning to take lessons from Philadelphia-based Leonid Grin.

In particular, she has taken an interest in the Russian method of conducting.

“It’s a tricky process, but there are different techniques you have to learn, just like an instrument,” she said of the learning process. “That’s what the Russian system is so good at, it has a real system of going through how to develop the arms so that it’s relaxed and yet communicating something, how to stand so you have a good impact on the orchestra, all that kind of thing had gone into it. It’s a bit like dancing in that sense, where a lot is communicated but you don’t quite know how.”

Having emerged from training, she took command of her first orchestra last year at St John’s Smith Square, and is currently working hard ahead of her second performance.

She says she feels privileged to be working with such a talented group of musicians, but even if the performance brings the house down, considers she is only just starting to learn the art.

“Training is only the very first step, and it takes a lifetime to understand what conducting means. I know that many famous conductors still in their 60s say they are only just beginning to understand what conducting means, and they’ve been doing it for 40 years or more. I really believe that, it’s such a complex art form, there are so many things having to come together to do it well. I find that sense of endlessness really inspiring and really challenging.”

*Masterworks from Moscow featuring conductor Rachael Young. Friday November 23, 7.30pm, Cadogan Hall, London. SW1X 9DQ. Tickets available from or by phoning 020 7730 4500.