The longest running conducting competition in Asia, Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting was first established in 1967 as the Min-On Competition for Conducting (referring to the organising body Min-On Concert Association). The first chairman of the jury was conductor and legendary pedagogue Hideo Saito, of Saito Kinen Orchestra fame, who set the standard, and initially it was more geared towards nurturing Japanese conductors. The list of past prizewinners looks like a who’s who from Tadaaki Otaka, Kazushi Ono, Junichi Hirokami and Tatsuya Shimono.

Hisao Kondo, Chairperson of the Organising Committee
Hisao Kondo, Chairperson of the Organising Committee

This year’s competition, the 18th edition, will take place at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall from the 8th to 14th October. “We have had 238 applicants from 44 countries for this competition. The number of applicants are almost the same as our last competition, but the number of nationalities have gone up,” explains Hisao Kondo, Chairperson of the Organising Committee and the Executive Managing Director of the Min-On Concert Association. “Until 2000, we had around 120-150 applicants, but since joining the World Federation of International Music Competitions it has gone up. This year, 68 of the applications were from Japan, but there were many from South Korea and Russia too. Also, there were 45 female applicants, which we find very encouraging.” 

Conducting competitions are generally notoriously difficult to maintain, says Kondo, mainly because of the cost of hiring orchestras and also because there are simply not as many conductors as pianists or violinists – renowned competitions such as the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize, Dimitri Mitropoulos International Music Competition for Conductors or, more recently, the short-lived Maazel-Vilar competition no longer exist. “The reason why we can maintain our competition without state subsidy or large sponsorship is because the Min-On Concert Association, a foundation that promotes culture and arts, is supported by one million sustaining members who contribute 500 yen (roughly £3) every year for our outreach activities which include the conducting competition.”

Comprising of three rounds, 18 chosen candidates (just announced) will conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (first preliminary and second preliminary rounds) and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (the final) in October. “Rather than always working with the same orchestra, we prefer to work with different Tokyo orchestras at each competition, and within the rounds too. That way, the contestants can experience different orchestras, and it will also give more orchestras the chance to get to know the young conductors. Perhaps they might want to invite them in the future.” The required repertoire of the competition is not large, but revealing: a Haydn symphony in the first round, a Japanese work (Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings), Rachmaninov and Bartók in the second round and, in the final, Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, plus a work of choice. The jury includes Alexander Lazarev, Tadaaki Otaka and former Vienna Philharmonic leader Werner Hink.

The 2015 First Prize winner was Spanish conductor Diego Martin-Etxebarria, who has since become First Kapellmeister at the Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach, and last season he returned to Japan to conduct the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra in a subscription concert. Interestingly he was the first winner of the top prize for over ten years. Kondo explains, “The judges didn’t award the first prize for four competitions between 2003 and 2012. We did get a little anxious, of course, especially when in 2012 there were no prizewinners at all, but the judges had a certain standard they wanted to maintain and we have always respected their decisions. But actually, Yuko Tanaka, who was one of the finalists in 2012, has since made really good progress and we are very pleased that she has recently been appointed Resident Conductor of Ensemble Kanazawa.”

Diego Martin-Etxebarria, First Prize Winner, 2015
Diego Martin-Etxebarria, First Prize Winner, 2015

2012 was actually a significant year because all three finalists were women. “We have always had female participants. Japanese conductor Yuri Nitta, awarded joint-second prize in 1991, was our first female prizewinner, and in the last competition, German conductor Corinna Niemeyer won third prize. There will be female participants in this year’s competition too,” according to Kondo.

These days, competitions are less about the actual prize and more about how much performing and mentorship opportunities it can offer the winners. What is the situation with the Tokyo International Competition for Conducting? “We hold two Gala Concerts for prizewinners in the following year of the competition, one in Tokyo and one in Nagoya. Also, we invite all the managing directors of member orchestras of the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras to the final of the competition, so that the finalists get maximum exposure. This year, we have also approached directors from orchestras in South Korea and Taiwan too. Currently we are strengthening relationships with orchestras in Asia so that we can provide more concert opportunities for the finalists. Also, for the contestants who don’t make it into the next round, we provide sessions for them to talk to the jury. We want to make sure that the overseas contestants in particular will have a worthwhile time in Tokyo.”

In the coming years, the Tokyo competition is looking to develop ties with Asian classical music market. “There are now so many wonderful halls throughout Asia and also the level of symphony orchestras is improving, so we want our competition to be known more in the region. Recently, as an outreach activity, we organised conductor’s workshops in Seoul with Tadaaki Otaka. I hope there will be more applicants from the region and hopefully winners too.”

The competition will not be livestreamed, but videos of the performances will be updated on their Facebook page, and the award ceremony will be streamed live. If you happen to be in Tokyo between the 8th and 14th October, pop in to the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall and see if you can spot the young conductors of the future, as all rounds are open to the public (tickets: preliminary rounds \1000 Yen, final \2000 Yen).

“Personally I think that conducting competitions are really enjoyable to listen to, because in a concert you rarely get the chance to compare the same work under different conductors. We have a strong line-up of contestants so please come or keep up with the competition through our social media,” Kondo says. In fact, there will be a Bachtrack reviewer covering the competition, so look out for his report too.


Article sponsored by Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting