Marina Mahler
© Yiannis Katsaris

“Each time is an adventure of listening,” Marina Mahler tells me, “and one has to give it one’s listening all. It’s not something that any of us can take lightly.” Gustav Mahler’s granddaughter is extremely conscious of her responsibilities as co-founder and jury member of the conducting competition that bears his name, something that she says “can be life transforming, even for the people who do not win the first prize”.

Marina takes care to avoid criticising other competitions, but she leaves one in no doubt that the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition is a unique experience. For a start, it sounds more like a ten day festival than a contest: “It’s a big adventure. Those 12 or 14 young people, even though they drop out at certain stages, we ask them to stay to the very end and to participate in the rehearsals, so they make friends and can talk with them, we as a jury talk with them about their own work. Everyone is there from the beginning to the end.” And the end, of course, is a big party where contestants, jury and orchestra members mix freely. Friendships are formed which can last a lifetime. “There's a warmth and a feeling between the young conductors, between the conductors and the jury, between the jury and the orchestra members. I've had the most extraordinary letters from people, it's like a big family.” Things are also helped by the nature of the city of Bamberg, where the competition is held: "It's an intimate warm place, and the orchestra is a Mahler orchestra from way back when. Also, the people of the town have adopted this competition as part of themselves. They are there when we have the dress rehearsal and then the final concert: it's a big family town occasion."

Leaving aside any considerations of atmosphere, one feature stands out: the young conductors may be surprised to discover that from the first rehearsal on the first day they arrive, they are handed the full forces of one of the world’s top orchestras: the Bamberg Symphony. Marcus Axt, the orchestra’s CEO, has suggested that this may come as a shock (“like being given the keys of a car and discovering that it’s a Ferrari”) but Marina doesn’t see it that way. “After all, every young conductor dreams of having a wonderful orchestra: for a conductor, it’s an instrument; they are nothing without it. It’s a huge and exciting challenge. Perhaps they have studied with a very informal orchestra or not even a professional orchestra and suddenly, they have the chance to reach out to an instrument which is very multi-sounded. It’s not so much frightening as impressive and also a learning experience because the orchestra responds in such an amazing way to all that they are trying to show. It gives them a chance to hear themselves reflected in a really great orchestra.”

Gustavo Dudamel
© Gerardo Gomez | Fundamusical

In many conducting competitions, it is not unknown for the orchestra members involved to arrive at very different conclusions from those of the jury. The Mahler Competition deals with this in two ways. Firstly, the hall has video screens projecting the orchestra’s viewpoint of the conductor, so that judges can clearly see details of gestures and facial expressions. Secondly, one member of the orchestra sits on the jury. “For me,” Marina says, “that is always one of the most important votes of all, because they know how this young person is responding to them and they have a different point of view than we do when we’re listening in the hall.”

Mahler was both a conductor and a composer of works that were considered “difficult” in his day but are now described as “ahead of his time”. For that reason, Marina explains, as well as the undoubted challenge of conducting major works by Mahler himself, the required repertoire includes at least one contemporary piece. For the first edition of the competition, candidates were asked to bring a work from their own country, but that didn’t work as planned: “We got a lot of sentimental music – not what we were imagining for a Mahler competition, so then we started asking certain composers to write something for us. That was a wonderful thing because it tests a different kind of capacity and ability and interest.” No particular brief is given to the composers other than that the piece must use the full orchestra and it must be short (“we don’t have much time otherwise, in ten days”). Recent editions have included work by Jörg Widmann, Rolf Wallin, Matthias Pintscher and others. The repertoire is filled out with works that are altogether different and older – Haydn, Mozart, Schubert or anything else – chosen to make a contrast in what is demanded of the conductors.

What happens, I ask, after the competition ends? After all, we live in an imperfect world in which great conducting talent doesn’t necessarily translate into a great conducting career… Marina is confident that the competition is doing the right things. “It's a very important part of the competition that it doesn't end there. From the beginning, automatically, agents came to the last concert, looking for talent and finding it. So that is one thing, but also we take very seriously each person and we recommend them either to an orchestra or to the manager of an orchestra. Our network is really wide, worldwide, so we try to see that they find a place, and we stay in touch. And we don't only stay in touch with the winners. The orchestra invites them back to play. So it's an ongoing thing and it's a widening thing, it's like branches of a tree and then smaller branches. It's a tree of life – a tree that stays full of life and sap.”

The Mahler Competition 2016 winner, Wong Kah Chun, with Jonathan Nott and Marina Mahler
© Bamberg Symphony

The branch of the tree that has grown the largest is undoubtedly Gustavo Dudamel, who won first prize at the first edition in 2004 and has gone on to become one of the biggest names in classical music. The career of Lahav Shani, winner in 2013, looks to be headed in the same direction, which won’t surprise anyone who was on the jury that year: “I can only say that with Lahav, there was one rehearsal where the whole jury came into the jury room, we looked at each other and we were speechless. We thought oh my God, that's it, it was such an amazing rehearsal. The next rehearsal wasn't so good, but that one was unforgettable.” The most recent winner, in 2016, is Kahchun Wong, who has impressed Marina not just for his music making but for his untiring work with very young children in his native Singapore (“Project Infinitude”, started together with the Mahler Foundation, gives artistic and musical experiences to children as young as three years old, often from disadvantaged backgrounds). At 33 years old, Wong has already landed a Chief Conductor job (at the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra) and has also been chosen to conduct the Chinese New Year concerts at the New York Philharmonic.

Marina refers several times to the “Mahler Effect”, the concept, to use the words of the man himself, that “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything”. As founder of the Mahler Foundation, she seeks to spread the life affirming qualities of the man’s music as widely as possible. Mahler also called himself “the singer of nature” and Marina finds this poignant “in our time of extreme stress for the planet. The children who are marching everywhere for climate change, they are the young heroes of today. Mahler would have adored them.”

Since the 2010/2011 anniversary years, Mahler symphonies seem to have become a frequent part of the repertoire of every major orchestra, and I ask if these years were critical. Marina’s memory goes back earlier: “I have a feeling also that Death in Venice, the film with the Adagietto [directed by Luchino Visconti in 1971], made a huge upturn in listening to Mahler, and the fact that Lenny Bernstein played the Resurrection Symphony when Jack Kennedy was assassinated and the Adagietto when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated shortly afterwards. Mahler has become part of the expression of huge events, things which hit hard, suddenly people reach out for a symphony to express it. It's a way to celebrate the human spirit, really. But I think now, it's become for young conductors a kind of baptism, you do Mahler, you grow into it, you need to, also to discover yourself as a human being and a conductor, and that is all wonderful.”

The next Mahler Competition will be held in 2020.
This article was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony.