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.

Where are you from?

I’m Romanian, but I’ve lived in the States pretty much my entire life. I left Romania when I was 4 during the revolution in 1989. I needed an eye operation and had to leave to get it.

Are you parents musical?

They didn’t do it professionally, but back in Romania everyone played an instrument or sang in the choir. It is very much part of the culture. My parents took us to concerts when we were young, and I didn’t like it whatsoever. I was forced and I only really started to like it when I started to play piano later on. They forced me into that also, and I didn’t like it for about the first two years. You don’t know what you’re doing when you start, it’s all a mess as you’re learning how to work the instrument. Eventually you catch on and you become a bit more able and you can do what you want a bit more. When I got to that stage I started to like listening to music. I started to explore Mozart and Beethoven and it became a natural thing at that point.

So how did you get into conducting?

That’s the interesting thing. Very rarely will you find someone who says they were born wanting to be a conductor. It’s something that happens at college and you want to switch from an instrument. That’s what happened to me. I went to college as a pianist, eventually switching to music history. I went to UT Austin for my first masters in Medieval Musicology. I studied Gregorian Chant. But I loved that stuff and I loved to read about it but not write about it. Then I met a musicology professor who said to me, ‘just try conducting, I think it would be an interesting match’. He got me some private lessons with Peter Bay, conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, and it just clicked. It was never a plan but once I tried it, it was obviously the right choice. From there I did what all young conductors do, which is to get some friends together and buy them some pizza and say ‘will you play some things for me while I conduct for an audition tape?’ So I did the Gran Partita, the Dvorak Wind Serenade, stuff like that, and by sheer luck I got into Indiana University.

Now you’re a freelance conductor?

I graduated two years ago from Arizona State with a doctorate. Now I’m music director of the North Shore Symphony Orchestra in Long Island and I guest conduct and am trying to find my path.

Do you use a baton to conduct?

I’m a baton guy, but lately I’ve started to explore no stick at all, and it’s much more pleasant. Your wrist and your hand as a whole are restricted by the stick. Which is the point as you want everything to come out of the point of the stick. But without your right hand is as free as your left. Sometimes it can be stiff and give a clear beat, other times it can do other things when you don’t need to give a clear beat.

How do you feel when you’re conducting?

It depends on the orchestra – the LSO will be very different from the North Shore Symphony. Sometimes you need to be very technically involved or it’ll fall apart, your conducting will be very different for different orchestras.

If you get through to the final, how will you approach that?

Honestly, I’ve done a lot of competitions, so I’ve had a chance to try a couple of things. My approach is to walk in and treat it like the first rehearsal of a concert. What I used to do is to treat it like a competition and think I should show things if I want to win. I would prepare things that I would think the panel should see and try and show them in my 15 minutes.  That may sound like it’s a good way to prepare, but really it’s not as they can see through it in no time. An orchestra can see through it, the jury can see through it. I could see through it if I were on the jury. So my philosophy is that it’s the first rehearsal with this group for a concert and that’s it. What I prepared, that’s what I’ll do. Whoever I am genuinely is going to come out.