Taking part in competitions is one way for budding new conductors to get noticed. For those who don’t walk off with the crown there is always the chance of receiving the attention of people who matter in the music business, or even gaining sufficient experience to want to have a second crack at coming out on top elsewhere. Entries have already closed for the 15th Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, but already anticipation is mounting as to which new and exciting talents might possibly emerge over the course of the coming event (20-22 November).

“Crazy, just crazy. I can‘t believe this is happening to me.” Those were the first thoughts that went through Niklas Hoffmann’s mind after hearing he had been voted the winner of the 2016 competition. He hadn’t for one moment believed that victory was within his grasp, but as the rounds progressed – and buoyed up on successive shots of adrenaline – he focused exclusively on the need to prepare, study and reflect. When reality finally set in, he had two old schoolfriends to celebrate with, one of whom had flown in specially to give moral support during the contest.

The next big surprise was being given a jump-in date with the LSO a few months later. With just 24 hours’ notice, he found himself bound for Vietnam and a concert in front of 60,000 people, using the flight time to familiarise himself with the works in the first half. Fortunately, the main work – Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – is a personal favourite of his and which he had conducted only a month previously with his amateur orchestra in Göttingen. This concert, plus the encore they gave from Star Wars, was “like hitting the jackpot”.

Role models are an obvious topic of conversation for young conductors. Hoffmann immediately mentions Abbado and the way he approached his craft. Like the great Italian maestro, he believes in the importance of orchestral players listening to each other rather than depending on constant eye contact with the conductor. One reason Hoffmann thinks he won was because he hardly changed anything while rehearsing “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, feeling instinctively that no additional output from him was going to improve what the LSO was already giving him. Trust is key and the ideal conditions for making music preclude the very notion of imposing anything by force. One revelation during his time as the the LSO’s Assistant Conductor was watching Haitink and Rattle at work. He had fondly imagined that with them everything would instantly fall into place at the first rehearsal, but they too are human and need to go through a process of discovery (he uses a German idiom to state that the world over even the great stars “do their cooking with water”). It came as something of a surprise to him that Rattle required just a few words to achieve the effects he wanted, and in Haitink’s case even less than that. “His aura and the serenity he exudes seem to do it for him,” Hoffmann says.

As he comes to the end of his spell as Assistant Conductor, I wanted to know how he viewed the whole experience. He is enormously grateful to management for making his time there so rewarding, but he doesn’t automatically get concert dates and is still without an agent. From his perspective, it would enhance the attractiveness of the competition to offer several opportunities to conduct youth and evening concerts with the LSO as well as leading early-evening programmes, since that would enable winners to showcase their skills in the presence of agents and concert promoters. He has, however, been able to work with the Guildhall orchestra, conducting rehearsals there and gaining valuable feedback.

Still only 27, he is about to conclude his master’s programme in Weimar. The conservatory there is rapidly building a reputation for forging young conducting careers (previous graduates David Afkham and Clemens Schuldt won the Flick in 2008 and 2010 respectively). Although he has not formally studied composition, he dedicates a considerable amount of time to writing his own pieces and plans to submit a series of songs for soloist and chamber ensemble as part of his degree requirements, citing Mahler and particularly Richard Strauss as major influences. Why the interest in composition? “There are hundreds and hundreds of recordings of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, but my compositions are absolutely unique. It’s my way of contributing to the course of music history,” he says. He feels strongly that composers today should leave their ivory towers and be much more integrated into the heart of society. “Young people need to feel that classical music is not just a museum with pieces from the past, but that there is a real and tangible connection with their own lives. Only that way will the business survive.” One concrete example he gives is Ludger Vollmer’s contemporary opera Gegen die Wand (based on a film by Fatih Akin, who himself has Turkish roots) which has at its heart the conflicts that emerge in a multicultural society. Hoffmann would like to see clear interaction between composers and their audiences, but concedes that this is not easy to achieve. Not that the composer should do the bidding of the audience, he hastens to add, but making something relevant should always be a two-way process.

None of the ripples that prizewinners make are predictable, but those already created by Elim Chan, winner in 2014, are considerable. Recently appointed the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor, she is also in charge of the Swedish opera company NorrlandsOperan. I asked her about the need for young artists to get noticed. She went to as many concerts and rehearsals as she could while studying in Michigan and, crucially, “I opened my ears”. She also applied to participate in as many masterclasses as she could and viewed the process of being part of the chosen circle as a kind of contest in itself. But even when the Flick competition loomed large, she had no expectations that this would prove a turning-point. All she wanted was “to show what I can do”, without any desire to impress. When she finally got to conduct the LSO, “it was a big dream come true”.

Everybody there was “super-helpful” during her time as Assistant Conductor, in particular the players themselves, who by sharing their experience of what works and what doesn’t were smoothing her passage to maturity. It was listening to the sound of a great orchestra and observing the differing effects which visiting conductors were able to achieve – while making copious notes on what was happening – that added significantly to her development. “If the prize had been twenty concerts,’ she says, “that wouldn’t have helped me – I’d have been totally overwhelmed.” Her time spent as an apprentice prepared her technically, musically and psychologically for the tasks ahead.

There were some lessons that quickly needed to be learned. She willingly admits to doing far too much in 2017, criss-crossing the continents, picking up cancellations and working almost round-the-clock. As a result, her health bombed and she was out of action for two months. Even when most of the musical world comes calling, she believes that young artists need to think about the consequences of over-exposure, even though “putting yourself on the map is important.” Without an ever-watchful eye from managers, there are potentially serious risks to physical stamina and to unfolding reputations. Now she prioritises much more and has at least one complete week off every month. “I need to recharge,” she says, “because conducting means giving out a lot of energy.”  

She talks about “the mystery of the conducting craft”, an enigma that nobody has yet properly cracked, and the particular problems that somebody like her – she refers to a degree of shyness and introversion – has in using words to communicate her intentions. “Ultimately, the personality just takes over,” she states, referring to a recent encounter with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in which the musicians with their peripheral vision were heeding the smallest indications of what she wanted from the signals her body was giving out.

She is already looking forward to her main season debut with the LSO in June 2019, describing it as “a homecoming”. The LSO believed in her from the start, and she identifies with the teenager who has gone away to college and is about to return to “the family” in order to show them how much she has grown in the meantime. She loves telling stories in music – Scheherazade is on the programme – and has a particular affinity with the Russian repertory, especially the big symphonic works she knows that both the LSO and RSNO play so well.

Closing that kind of circle is even more pronounced in the case of François-Xavier Roth, joint winner in 2000 and now one of the LSO’s two Principal Guest Conductors. Both Hoffmann and Chan paid tribute to his keen personal interest and mentoring after their recent successes, and he will be bringing his particular insights to the judging process this November as a member of the jury. “The motivation to conduct must be so irresistible,” Roth argues, “that you cannot sleep until you can make music happen.”

He has already been asked to judge other conducting competitions, but because of his considerable workload has so far refused. However, he feels it is now time to give something back and he is especially pleased to be doing this in the case of the Flick, for it is, in his words, “absolutely unique”. There is no other event where the orchestra and the contestants are so inextricably linked during the selection process and where winners are so carefully mentored and supported in the years that follow. It is always “a long journey” for young conductors and they need time to grow and develop. In his case the LSO “has always respected my personality” and never expected him to confine himself to the French repertory, but instead has given him the freedom to focus on his interest in thematic music-making, an approach he is very eager to explore further in coming seasons.

Which took us on to the nature of the LSO, which he describes as “an amazing chameleon”. The players are very flexible, very adaptable and keen to look at things with fresh eyes. Above all, they have changed over the years. Roth remembers that they used to rehearse far less than they now do. “They have recognised that they need to go more deeply into the music,” he states. This is something much closer to the German tradition (and Roth has major positions in Cologne in charge of the opera and the city’s Gürzenich Orchestra, as well as conducting experience with many other orchestras in Germany and Austria), where generous rehearsal time aids a slower process of digestion and understanding, enabling interpretations to be honed without undue haste.

One of the special ways in which Roth has maintained his close links with the LSO is through his championing of the annual Panufnik Composers Scheme, inaugurated in 2005. This gives six emerging young composers the chance to write for the LSO and showcase their skills in public workshops. “Please invent something that we don’t know already,” is what Roth tells them in his role as a guiding spirit. “Surprise us, provoke us, please dare to do something new,” is the message he sends out, “for that is your role as a composer.” As with young conductors, young composers never hatch fully-formed from the egg, but need to be nurtured and stimulated during ongoing paths of personal discovery and development. Roth’s role in the scheme embodies a dialogue that he takes particular delight in initiating as well as providing challenging support as each individual identity evolves.

Competition juries are rarely unanimous; performing artists often divide experts and audiences; the buzz around contests of this kind invites endless speculation. All the more reason then to welcome the prospect of greater public participation in this year’s Flick Competition. For the first time it will be streamed live on Medici.tv and the preliminary rounds, not just the final, will be open to the public. As far as the voting is concerned, the entire LSO is involved in the process (not merely those members who sit on the jury), and in another innovation the audience too will have a chance to cast a vote – albeit unofficially – for its own favourite candidate.


Tickets for this year’s Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition final are on sale. Go here here for more information. 

Article sponsored by London Symphony Orchestra.