Competitions have become an essential rite of passage for professional classical musicians. Take a look at the artists’ biographies in a random program and lists of victories occupy a prominent position. The premise of powerful young talents finding the entrée to recognition through a public showdown has inspired art itself — think Wagner’s Die Meistersinger — and even ancient mythology (things could go very badly when daring to vie with the gods, as in the contest of the satyr Marsyas with Apollo).

From left to right: Kanade Yokoyama, Nodoka Okisawa and Masaru Kumakura © Min-On Concert Association
From left to right: Kanade Yokoyama, Nodoka Okisawa and Masaru Kumakura
© Min-On Concert Association
Recently, Japan became the magnet for some of the most gifted young conductors around the world, as contestants convened for the 18th edition of the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. Organised and promoted by the Min-On Concert Association, this is not only the longest-running such competition in Asia — having been established in 1967 — but remained the only one until January 2018, when the Hong Kong International Competition was inaugurated. Through its half-century of existence, the Tokyo competition has been held as a triennial event. The recently concluded edition lasted for one week, from 8 to 14 October.

It resulted in a dramatically unprecedented victory: Nodoka Okisawa (b. 1987) became the first-ever woman to win First Prize in the competition's history. Women had however taken second and third prize in the 1991 and 2015 editions respectively. Watch out for our upcoming interview with Okisawa for more background about this remarkable artist. 

“Even though I did not win any award, I enjoyed participating in this well-organised competition,” said Shokhrukh Sadikov, a contestant from Uzbekistan. “For any young conductor it's a great experience to work with orchestras of such caliber”. He was among the elite group of 18 contestants invited to come to Tokyo. A nominating committee had carefully screened the initial materials (including video samples of their work) from a pool of 238 applicants that flowed in from 42 countries around the globe. The cutoff age is 38 years at the time of the finals. Of the four finalists, the oldest, Canadian Earl Lee, was 34.

In the first of three rounds all of the contestants had to show off their skills interpreting the first of Haydn’s Paris symphonies (no. 82 in C major, nicknamed “the Bear”). The field was further narrowed at the next stage with a diverse programme of Takemitsu (Requiem for Strings), Rachmaninov (Piano Concerto no. 3), and Bartók (first and fourth movements from the Concerto for orchestra). 

Nodoka Okisawa © Min-On Concert Association
Nodoka Okisawa
© Min-On Concert Association
Both preliminary rounds were with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The nine-judge panel (presided over by Chairperson Yuzo Toyama) then selected four finalists to compete in the concluding concert, this time leading the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Tokyo boasts no fewer than eight major orchestras, and the competition takes advantage of this to maximise mutual exposure between the young conductors and the metropolis’s abundance of top-rate ensembles. 

Each round was open to the public, and the finals, lasting throughout a Sunday afternoon, were riveting to behold: a vicarious masterclass in this strangely indefinable but very real art, with no technical jargon or rehearsal repetitions but simply the real-time experience of what happens when a conductor conjures music from a highly skilled ensemble.

The final's first part was entirely devoted to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Mendelssohn’s concert overture, whilst for the second part the finalists had each submitted a list of three orchestral compositions from which the panel chose one. Surprisingly, perhaps, four iterations in a row of the Mendelssohn score were the opposite of boring: I found myself perking up, lighting on details that stood out as markers of a difference in approach with each of the conductors. It was enlightening to realise why this was such a good choice: the transition from the subtly ominous Adagio introduction into the Allegro calls for much more than stepping on the accelerator, while a climax of fanfares must be reined in suddenly for the closing gesture to exert its magic.

The subtle differences in the first part also intriguingly contrasted with the more obvious ones of each finalist’s vision in the second part. I was so impressed by Lee’s sweepingly dramatic, passionately paced account of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique that it came as a shock when the panel gave him the fourth-category prize (titled “Encouragement Award”). Third-prize winner Masaru Kumakura (b. 1992) went for a notably non-flashy choice, the first and fourth movements of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, shaping the music’s architectural contours with grace and clarity. 

Kanade Yokoyama © Min-On Concert Association
Kanade Yokoyama
© Min-On Concert Association

Second-prize and Audience Award winner Kanade Yokoyama (b. 1984) conducted the orchestra in a sizeable chunk of the Enigma Variations (from “Nimrod” to the end), which shrewdly showed off his skill with widely contrasting material. First-prize winner Okisawa not only had the courage to select Strauss’ Don Juan but came through with a richly textured, fully developed performance of that fiercely challenging score. 

All of this transpired in the vaulting, oak-covered, 1632-seat concert hall at Tokyo Opera City, which has a very bright acoustic. Multiple intermissions gave time to wander about the surrounding arts complex, home to two museums and five other performance venues, and admire the variety of architecture and site-specific sculpture. Nearby, a production of The Magic Flute was under way at the New National Theatre. A high-rise that is part of Tokyo Opera City beckoned with restaurant choices — can one possibly go wrong in this culinary paradise? — and a commanding 53rd-floor observatory overview of Tokyo’s ceaselessly stunning cityscape. 

“The important experience for me was learning how to keep focused for the entire week,” remarked Yokoyama during a session of interviews the day after the finals. Having previously studied voice, he had participated in two earlier editions of the competition, but this time his concentration paid off. Fellow contestant Kumakura pointed out that even the frustrations inherent in the experience have a positive value: “Without an orchestra, a conductor can’t do anything. Even if I wasn’t able to bring out certain sounds as I intended, it made me realise within myself that I need to be more precise in my ways of conducting.” 

Masaru Kumakura © Min-On Concert Association
Masaru Kumakura
© Min-On Concert Association

Kumakura’s observation homes in on something crucial about the Tokyo International Music Competition: this is not a zero-sum game, even though the pain of being winnowed out is undeniable. Another of the non-finalist contestants, Belarusian Alexander Humala, told me that he had benefited from “working with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, meeting new colleagues among the participants and jury members, and getting some great advice about what needs to be improved and how to do it.” 

One of the judges was American Peter Pastreich, whose eminent history includes years as executive director of the San Francisco Symphony. He remarked that in the first round, “10 of the 18 contestants were eliminated on the basis of a Haydn symphony. I have known world-class conductors who didn’t know what to do with a Haydn symphony. I believe the winners are all remarkably good. Those who didn’t make it into the finals are not necessarily inferior.” 

I also spoke with composer-conductor Kent Hugo Moussault, who traveled from his home in The Hague to participate, the youngest of the contestants. "Once a teacher of mine told me he took part in over five competitions but never won a single one," he said "yet he has still managed to have a good career as a conductor by using the contacts he gained from competing". After the competition, Moussault said: “one of the members of the Organising Committee helped me acquire more contacts in Japan. Hopefully this will help me to start a career just like that teacher.” 

A recurrent observation about the competition overall was that it was extremely well-organised. I sensed that my own experience of traveling to Tokyo for the first time mirrored something of what the foreign contestants with whom I spoke felt: all of my attention during my brief stay was focused on the competition, with no time for exploring the city. That focus was both exciting and exhausting. The day after, Kumakura emphasised how relieved he felt after so much pressure — though onstage he had appeared utterly natural and at ease.

I saw little of the quirkier aspects that sometimes accompany such high-pressure situations. No one I spoke to indulged in special rituals or had personal items they used for luck (like Leonard Bernstein’s obsessive donning of a pair of cufflinks once gifted by his mentor Serge Koussevitzky). “In fact, I try not to follow any rituals,” Yokoyama said. “I would rather stay the same when I am on or off the podium. I don’t have the attitude that I am going to suddenly be the maestro by stepping up there. I even went out drinking before the finals!”

Chairperson Yuzo Toyama (Permanent Conductor of the NHK Symphony) observed: “When the contestants walk onstage, whether they have control over the orchestra is decided from the first step. This is a difference from other competitions involving the voice or instruments: their manner of walking onstage shows everything.” Judge Werner Hink, former first concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, added: “Many conductors talk too much. That contributes nothing. Conductors communicate with charisma and body language. That is the secret of conducting.”

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