Donatella Flick Conducting Competition logo
Donatella Flick Conducting Competition logo

What does a conductor actually do? It’s a question musicians are asked countless times.

There are essentially two different jobs for a conductor:

  1. The ‘mechanical’ job of keeping an orchestra playing together; balancing the different sections of the orchestra to the right dynamics; giving clear upbeats so your musicians know what speed is intended; and being able to manage a crisis without confusing everyone if something goes wrong.
  2. Providing inspiration for the musicians, with the right amount of freedom and energy to make the concert a powerful, emotive rollercoaster. A conductor needs to show phrasing and subtle nuances with the flick of a wrist or curl of a finger – the orchestra understands what’s being asked for without a word ever being spoken. For a group of highly trained professional musicians who have played the piece so many times they can (sometimes literally) do it in their sleep, it can often then be a question of not getting in the way!

 It must be terribly hard for conductors to learn their skills, as the only time they can practice is when they have a group of musicians in front of them who are genuinely reacting (sometimes cruelly) to their efforts. Perhaps that’s why most of the truly great conductors are older – it has taken them that long to reach their peak. There are many stories of revered conductors who, in their youth, were detested by orchestras, as they learnt by making catastrophic mistakes and using a fair bit of foul language to express their displeasure.

 So how do you spot who are the best (or going to become the best) conductors of their generation? The Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, taking place at the Barbican Centre again this autumn, aims to do just that. Twenty young conductors – under the age of 35 – line up for this three-day competition, with only three getting through to the Grand Final on 17 November, where they will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a bid to be crowned the winner. They will claim the title of Assistant Conductor of the LSO and launch their career as an international conductor

 The jury will include the world renowned conductors Antonio Pappano and Yuri Temirkanov and two members of the LSO, violinist and Sub-Leader Lennox Mackenzie and Principal Bassoon Rachel Gough. What will they be looking for? Will the conductors on the jury be looking for slightly different things than the orchestral members? Will a beat which the conductors think is effective and powerful be considered irritating and restrictive to the players? Will the musicians want a conductor who doesn’t get in the way? At the end of the day the excitement of the performance is overwhelmingly important, but the process through which the contestants go during their rehearsal time will be judged by everyone in the orchestra and on the jury. Indeed, in this competition the orchestra members have their own vote, which will count towards the final result.

We’ll be guiding you through the rather mysterious process of choosing the best conductor during the three days of the competition, talking to the members of the orchestra, the jury, and of course the conductors themselves, as they are weighed in the balance.

Want to watch them sweat it out? Follow the competition here and if you can, come to the Barbican Centre on Thursday 17 November for the Grand Final and experience the frisson, the energy and the excitement as one of these young conductors’ lives is changed forever.

Find out more information about the competition here.