What do judges look for in an international conducting competition? Young potential talent or someone who is more experienced and work-ready? Of course, ideally they would want to find someone who is both, but it’s often a reality that they have to compromise and choose one over the other, or not give the top prize at all. Fortunately, the judges in this year’s Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting found a highly talented conductor with both of these qualities in 23-year-old José Soares from Brazil, the youngest of the four finalists.

Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting first prize winner José Soares
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The competition took place in the beautiful acoustics of Tokyo’s Opera City Concert Hall between 27th September and 3rd October. For obvious reasons, one competition that can’t be held online is conducting, so for the last 18 months the organizing committee, led by Chairperson Kazuto Ito, had to agonise over whether they could go ahead as scheduled or should postpone it to 2022 – especially in view of the rise in Covid-19 numbers in Japan, visa issues and quarantine requirements for oversea participants and judges. Ultimately, they made the decision to hold the competition even if it could only involve domestic participants. The big surprise for the committee and the jury was that, despite the pandemic, this year there were 331 applicants from 49 countries, the highest numbers in its 54-year history, showing the keen worldwide interest in this competition.

After a rigorous screening process, 12 competitors gathered in Tokyo for the three rounds of the competition. A total of 14 were originally chosen, but two had to pull out. This year, the two preliminary stages took place behind closed doors due to Covid-19, but the final round, held in concert format, was open to the public and, for the first time in its history, also streamed online. The four contestants who were chosen for the final were from Brazil, France, Japan and the UK. While the previous competition was won by female conductor Nodoka Okisawa, this year it was an all-male final, although there were two women contestants in the preliminary stages. 

Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting second prize winner Samy Rachid
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Frenchman Samy Rachid kicked off the final round with a lyrical and sonorous performance of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie overture, the compulsory work for all competitors. Some may recognize his name, as he was until recently the cellist of the award-winning Quatuor Arod. Amazingly, he only took up the baton eight months ago, a career change he made during the pandemic, but his musicianship and understanding of the ensemble shone through, and the delicate way he shaped the various melodies was a joy. Next up, Brazilian Soares approached the work in a more disciplined, march-like manner. He has a natural way with the baton and the ability to draw rich and brilliant sounds with effortless gestures. Bertie Baigent from the UK perhaps had less flair in the Rossini than the previous two, but showed fine control and achieved a good balance between the sections. Japanese contestant, Satoshi Yoneda conducted with youthful enthusiasm, bringing out a fully rounded sound from the New Japan Philharmonic.

Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting third prize winner Bertie Baigent
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After the interval, the contestants conducted their piece of choice, selected by the executive committee amongst the three they were required to submit for the final. Rachid conducted a slightly abridged version of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, which he performed for the first time. A bold choice, as it is rhythmically quite intricate in places, but he explained afterwards that it was really important for him to choose French repertoire in the finals, as most of the time one doesn’t have the chance to do so, in conducting competitions. He also conducted from memory, which is not a prerequisite, but showed that he had command of the score. Not everything was always in sync, but he created a deep, warm sound and particularly impressed in the second part with the organ. Soares’s final piece was Stravinsky’s Petrushka in the 1947 version, minus Part 3 and the death of Petrushka, which really demonstrated his strengths. He has a strong built-in sense of rhythm and bursting energy, and his technique was clear and precise. He also conducted this complex score from memory, not missing a cue. He was certainly the safest hands technically, but he also characterized each movement with bold colours, getting wonderful solo playing from the flute, cor anglais and trumpet in particular.

The only German work in the final came from Baigent who conducted Tod und Verklärung, an exuberant early score by Strauss. Baigent guided the orchestra carefully through this complex and lush sonority, gradually building up the momentum to a magnificent finale which, he later told me, he feels has “a sense of hope and is what we all need at the moment”. For this performance, he was awarded the newly created Orchestral Award from the NJP, a huge seal of approval from the musicians. Yoneda concluded the proceedings with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture. He started out calmly and steadily, shaping the music and the drama, but then he got a bit too over-excited, and although he brought out a powerful sound from the orchestra, he seemed to lose sight of the narrative of this poignant story.

Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting Honorable Mention winner Satoshi Yoneda
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The judges’ decision, I was told, is based on all the rounds they attend, and they also observe how the contestants communicate with the players during the rehearsal process and whether they have a strong musical voice of their own which they want to express. I didn’t try to predict the results as I had only listened to the finals, but my impression was that Soares’s Petrushka was the most outstanding and assured performance of the second half. Musically, Rachid had a lot to offer too, and his Rossini made me want to hear him in classical repertoire. After an hour of deliberation, the results were announced: Soares won the first prize and Audience Award, Rachid won the second prize, and Baigent won the third prize, the Orchestral Award as well as the “Hideo Saito Award”, given in memory of the great conductor and pedagogue to the finalist with the most potential. Yoneda was presented with an Honorable Mention, the Encouragement Award. 

The judges seemed to be in agreement that the level of this year’s competition was particularly high, especially in terms of their musicality and maturity. At the post-competition press conference, Tadaaki Otaka, Chairperson of the Judges and eminent conductor, commented that indeed, all contestants who were invited to come to Tokyo are at the level that they can embark on a career now – and in fact some already have. Amongst the jury, Rainer Küchl, who has played under all the great conductors in his 40 years as concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, said he was also hugely impressed by the finalists’ musicality. Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant agreed: “This year we had a fantastic level in this competition,” he said. “I had so much fun seeing all these young conductors with such incredible capacity of conducting the orchestra with a maturity that is so rare.”

Although José Soares, the first winner from Latin America, was the youngest finalist, he was also the most experienced of the four, as he has been Assistant Conductor of the Minas Geras Philharmonic in Brazil since early 2020. He told me how the pandemic started just as he took up the post, and that he has been stepping into a lot of concerts because many international conductors haven’t been able to visit. One of the highlights of the competition for him was conducting Akira Miyoshi’s Three Symphonic Movements in the second round. “I didn’t know the composer,” he said, “but to get really deep inside the piece with a Japanese orchestra was so rewarding, and I felt I was able to bring something to them.”

José Soares conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic in the second preliminary round.

The finalists all found that working with two of Tokyo’s top orchestras during the competition – the Tokyo Philharmonic in the preliminary rounds and the NJP in the final – was a challenge but a valuable experience. “The orchestras sounded really different, and we had to focus and adapt ourselves very quickly,” commented Rachid. One of the things Baigent really enjoyed about the competition, particularly in the final, was that they were given a lot of rehearsal time with the orchestra. “And because the judges weren’t there for these rehearsals, it gave us the feel that what we were doing was not a competition but a concert,” he explained. “It was making music together, which is what this is all about.”

The three finalists will have the opportunity come back to Tokyo next July to make their debut with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and Otaka says he looks forward to mentoring them on that occasion. Hopefully this competition will give all contestants a springboard towards a great future. I, for one, will look forward to hearing them on the professional stage soon. As jury member Sian Edwards summed up neatly: “Everybody who is involved in such an important competition can be proud to be part of it, and the winners will also have a tremendous stamp of approval that will stand in good stead for all the concerts and opera invitations that will hopefully come as a result of it.”

This article was sponsored by the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting.