Despite no shortage of manuals and memoirs, conducting remains a mysterious profession. How exactly do conductors learn their craft? And how is their talent judged? The criteria behind awarding prizes to pianists or violinists can be obscure enough, but how does a conducting competition work?

Conducting competitions have multiplied in number as the old career paths for conductors have grown less accessible. Opera houses are no longer the training ground for young conductors in the way they once were. As such, the relevance of an event like the Grzegorz Fitelberg International Competition has accordingly risen in recent years. 

Marzena Diakun (Silver Baton 2012)
© Marco Borggreve

Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879–1953) was best known internationally for his association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and was also the Music Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic in the 1920s and 30s. In exile in the United States during the war years, in 1946 he returned to Katowice to lead the Polish National Radio Symphony, mentoring many young conducting students. Beginning in 1979, the Silesian Philharmonic’s Fitelberg Competition has helped launch the careers of a string of celebrated conductors, from Claus Peter Flor and Patrick Fournillier, to Modestas Pitrėnas. The competition’s pre-eminent success story in recent years has been the Silver Baton winner from 2012, Marzena Diakun.

Diakun had her eye trained on the podium from early on. Growing up in the city of Koszalin, on Poland’s Baltic Sea coast, she was taken by her parents to see the local Philharmonic Orchestra. “I was fascinated by this person at the centre of it all,” she tells me. “At home we listened to a lot of music. And my brother, nine years older than me, was a violinist. But at the age of seven I conducted my class at school in a little song. And at home I would arrange my teddy bears like an orchestra. So this was my dream even then. Not to be a princess, but a conductor.”

Studying piano in the meantime, the teenage Diakun chanced upon an advert for a conducting masterclass. While her friends went off to swim, she sat on the beach and studied a Haydn symphony for the exam to enter the masterclass. “No one had taught me anything about conducting. I had played the piano both as a soloist and within the orchestra, that’s all. So I was studying this score with no expectation of getting further than an observer for the masterclass.” She passed, however – on her debut in front of a professional orchestra – and became one of the chosen twelve participants.

Marzena Diakun conducts
© Marco Borggreve

Diakun won a place at the Karol Lipiński Academy of Music in Wrocław, where she entered the conducting class of Mieczysław Gawronski. It tends not to be appreciated that even at a conservatoire, most conducting classes take place not with a willing orchestra of students on hand but in front of a pianist or two. “So I was always looking out for other masterclasses.” She spent time in Bern with Andrey Boreyko, and then at the Lucerne Festival Summer Academy with Pierre Boulez.

Having completed her formal studies in 2005, she entered a competition in Prague, where she came second to her fellow Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański. Success there proved to be a jumping off point for him, but not so much for Diakun. At that time, she recalls, women conductors were still greatly unusual. “I was the only woman in my class throughout my studies. And back then there were definitely agents and orchestras who had no interest in taking on a woman conductor.”

Her native Poland at least still supplies no shortage of professional ensembles to work with: there is a state-sponsored Philharmonic Orchestra for each of the country’s 47 administrative districts. The 17th International Percussion Music Days Festival in Koszalin brought unexpected experience, when the scheduled conductor pulled out, and Diakun found herself learning to conduct Georges Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique at short notice. Criss-crossing Poland in her 20s, she saw the opportunity to take her career to the next level with the Fitelberg Competition. “It’s one of the hardest out there,” she says.

Marzena Diakun conducts De Moldau from Smetana’s Ma vlast.

The 11th edition of the Competition will take place in Katowice from 17th–27th November 2023. The terms and conditions should sort the sheep from the goats. For the first round, candidates pick two of four overtures and one of four symphonies. The jury then decides what pieces – and which sections of those pieces – they want to hear the candidate rehearsing over a nerve-shredding 30 minutes.

Diakun recalls her experience with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in the Fitelberg Competition’s first round. “I came out and started the first movement, and then after a few minutes I heard a voice: ‘Thank you very much. Now, second movement, bar 134’. And it went on like that, as an exam of the most difficult parts of the Eroica! Now this transition here, now the second theme there. They wanted to see if I really knew the whole piece. Sometimes I had to tell the orchestra not to stop – even in tricky places where I wanted to shape them better.”

Reaching the final round, she drew lots to conduct Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. “I was working on the first movement when I was told to go straight through the Scherzo, no stopping. There was a change of metre, and the orchestra couldn’t follow me. So in that moment it fell apart, but I managed to keep going and repair what needed repairing, and we made it to the end.”

Young or old, conductors have to place all their faith in the musicians in front of them. “In a competition environment like this,” remarks Diakun, “the orchestra have to adjust all the time, and that’s not easy. Because even if we do the same piece, we do it in different ways.” Now a teacher of conducting herself, at her alma mater in Wrocław, what strategy would she recommend to her younger counterparts at the Fitelberg Competition?

“In any rehearsal,” she replies, “you always have to bear in mind the time you have available, whether it’s half an hour or 45 minutes or whatever. If a particular movement takes twelve minutes, I will rehearse it for eight minutes. And I will focus on this place, because it’s important. As for the rest, I just tried to stay calm: eat regularly and sleep well, all that stuff.”

Diakun conducts Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony with the Orchestre Phiharmonique de Radio France.

Diakun had wisely brought a friend to the competition – a confidence-booster, and not-so-secret weapon. “She helped me a lot, not just watching the other competitors and spending time with me, but with how to dress. I wasn’t really thinking about it: I just put an outfit on. She said, ‘No, no: we’ll change that.’ And this matters for conductors: people are looking at us all the time. And even subconsciously, the musicians are judging us – not only the movement of our hands, but what we have to say, and how we say it.”

Any leadership role demands energy, not only held within but radiating outwards. “The longer we are on stage, the more likely it is that energy levels go down,” Diakun continues. “So we have to keep bringing new energy. If we have nothing important to say after 20 minutes, it becomes boring. And if this isn’t part of a conductor’s personality, they have to develop it. We have to be aware of our particular weak points in dealing with a large group of people.”

The Silver Baton in Katowice planted Diakun’s flag on the map, not least in her native country, because there had been so few Polish prize-winners until that point. She soon took up an assistant’s post at the Radio Philharmonic in Paris. She frequently found herself called upon to step in, sometimes at a moment’s notice, because of the chronic back condition suffered by the orchestra’s chief conductor, Mikko Franck. “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Mikko would be there at rehearsal, and suddenly on Friday I would be told, Marzena, you’re on to conduct in five minutes. Even if you have prepared the score, you can never be prepared for this moment.”

Diakun conducts Pierre Henry’s Dixième Symphonie together with Pascal Rophé and Bruno Mantovani.

Her time in Paris secured her a return invitation to collaborate with the conductor Pascal Rophé on a remarkable project: a live recreation of a piece of musique concrète by Pierre Henry, La Dixième Symphonie, Hommage à Beethoven, which jumbles up bits of the nine symphonies in a ten-movement, hour-long sequence. The subsequent Alpha recording is a useful calling card, but the film of the occasion really shows the complexities of the project, and the flair of Diakun’s style.

As Diakun’s career has progressed, so too has her ability to be selective in the projects she takes on. “There was a time when I just wanted engagements with better and better orchestras, in Berlin and so on. But then I needed to take a step back and ask myself what I’m doing and how best I can develop. And this is as much a matter of repertoire, what I am conducting, as much as where I’m conducting it.”

Marzena Diakun
© Marco Borggreve

For Diakun, right now, that means Bruckner and Mahler – their Fourths in particular, which she has been preparing for long-anticipated concerts in Madrid. “I love both of them,” she says, “but I think that Bruckner is even harder to conduct because you need to find something that is not written in the score. You have to create a mood, a sense of the moment, and this isn’t something you can learn in class. You just come to it over time. I studied the score, and I asked: ‘I know I love you, Bruckner, but do you love me?’ And the answer I got back after the concert felt like a positive. So this is one direction I will pursue in the future.” In November we will find out from Katowice who will follow in her footsteps.

The 11th Grzegorz Fitelberg International Conducting Competition runs from 17th–27th November 2023.
This article was sponsored by the Silesian Philharmonic.