The Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, held every two years, was founded in 1990 by philanthropist Donatella Flick. Ahead of the three rounds which will crown the 2016 winner, between the 15th and 17th November, Bachtrack's insider Nicole Wilson meets the competitors who will have to prove their talent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

© Catarina Fernandes
© Catarina Fernandes

Where are you from?

I grew up in Porto and left at 25 to go to Lisbon. I left to do my masters at the RNCM at 28. Since I finished I’ve been freelancing and I’m a bit of a nomad.

Do you class yourself as Portuguese or Polish?

 I was born in Poland but grew up in Portugal. My parents moved to Portugal when I was 4 years old. I do have my Polish roots and some of the culture, but I’m much more Portuguese.

Was there a lot of music for children in Portugal?

Not as much as now. In the 90s Portugal was developing rapidly, and there was a big wave of music immigration to Portugal and my parents were part of that. I grew up very close to the Porto orchestra, my mother played there, she was the second assistant leader. I watched a lot of rehearsals and used to go and practice piano because I’m a pianist. Growing up I watched the orchestras concert and there was a bit of chamber music. It was a developing world, now it’s much richer.

When did you get the conducting bug?

I first tried it when I was 21. I never talked with my mother about it but it was always at the back of my mind. When I was 20 I was driving a friend and he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I was OK with piano but I wanted to try conducting. My mother heard about this and so  she introduced me to the conductor of the orchestra and he gave me my first lessons. He took me on as an assistant on a production of Carmen. There I had my first experience because he got sick one evening and I had to conduct the chorus and the quintet. It was super terrifying but a lot of fun.

How do you cope with the nomadic life of a conductor?

Not very well, it’s not my cup of tea. I’m learning to deal with it, but the last year and a half I haven’t even rented a room anywhere so it has really been nomadic. I’m at the beginning so there’s been a lot of freelancing in Portugal, but not so much abroad so I’m still doing masterclasses and studying. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of staying in places where it’s not your space. You have to find your peace of mind when you live like this. Right now my base is in Lisbon again. I’ve been renting a flat in Lisbon for the last 3 weeks. This is an important step as I do need a base.

How do you find working with different orchestras socially?

I don’t know if I make friends, but I do enjoy the social part of having 3 or 4 days to try and make a connection with people. This is one of the main things about conducting, one of the biggest challenges but one of the most satisfying when you make it happen. One has to keep an open mind about the musicians you meet every week. I will never forget Paavo Järvi saying that you cannot go into someone’s home as a guest and change the furniture. It’s a beautiful analogy. We do have to adapt of course, every conductor has his own personality, ways of working and musical ideas, but you do have to be open to what is happening in the house.

Before you go on stage, do you have a routine? How do you prepare mentally?

A good night’s sleep is nice. I don’t sleep a lot during rehearsal time because my mind doesn’t stop. I don’t stress about the rehearsals, but until the last minute of the last rehearsal it’s a work in progress so my mind doesn’t have a rest. I do need to address this in the future as it’s not healthy at all. The moment I finish the last rehearsal and I say thank you to the orchestra I do relax. I do have one routine before the concert – I do like to spend the last 15 minutes or so among the orchestra and not in my dressing room. I like to feel the vibe, I like to feel the energy and of course I have an espresso half an hour before!