The 19th edition of the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting will take place in September/October 2021 under the leadership of Japanese conductor Tadaaki Otaka. As a young music student, he remembers being hugely excited when the competition first started in 1967 as the MIN-ON Competition for Conducting, a name referring to the organising body, the MIN-ON Concert Association. Three years later he won second prize in the second competition, which set him up on his successful career. After many years on the panel of judges, he now takes over as chairperson.

Tadaaki Otaka © Martin Richardson
Tadaaki Otaka
© Martin Richardson

“As judges, we are mainly thinking how likely it is for a contestant to go on and become a really good conductor in the future. Rather than focusing on their current level of skill or perfection, what we really want to see is their potential for future development”, Otaka said at the press conference held in August. “When I took part in 1970, there was an American conductor in the final who was technically perfect and many thought he would win, but the jury thought there was less room for improvement with him, whereas they saw more potential in the first-prize winner, Kazuhiro Koizumi (current Music Director of the Nagoya Philharmonic) and me. So I hope we can also discover budding talents who will blossom into brilliant conductors.”

In its earlier years, the competition was mainly for nurturing Japanese conductors, but in recent years it has been increasingly recognised as a gateway to success for aspiring international conductors. The 2018 competition had 238 applicants from 42 countries and territories – a quarter from Japan but the rest from abroad including South Korea, Russia and Europe. In fact, the number of nationalities has been rising since it joined the World Federation of International Music Competitions in 2014. Another interesting trend is that nearly a fifth of the applicants in 2018 were female, and Nodoka Okisawa made history by becoming the first-ever female winner.

“Several orchestras have recently engaged our prizewinners,” says Hideo Murata, Chairperson of the Executive Committee and Executive Director of the MIN-ON Concert Association. “Especially in current pandemic times, our winners including Okisawa and Masaru Kumakura [the third prize winner in 2018] have been given several opportunities to conduct major Japanese orchestras, replacing international conductors who are not able to travel to Japan.”

In this 2021 edition, the panel will consist of four Japanese judges and five from overseas. Of the latter, many are new to the panel, including Dan Ettinger (Israel), Okko Kamu (Finland) and Jun Märkl (Germany). Former Vienna Philharmonic leader, Rainer Küchl (Austria), returns to the panel to offer his expert judgment based on his experiences as an orchestral musician, both in symphonic repertoire and opera. “Through discussions with Mr. Otaka, we’ve been able to assemble a panel of judges who are active on the international stage and have a broad perspective, including experience in opera and education” explains Murata. “In particular, we consider it very important that all the contestants have the opportunity to receive feedback and advice from the judges, even if they don’t proceed to the next stage. At the last competition, I observed the judges spending plenty of time with the contestants after each round, trying to give the best possible advice.”

Free accommodation for all contestants is provided for the duration of the competition – a highly generous gesture which is not standard for all competitions. This will give the contestants the opportunity to attend all the rounds and learn from the other participants and will also foster international exchange and friendship. The competition also provides airfare subsidy for contestants from overseas: 50,000 yen (ca. 350 GBP) for those coming from Asia and 100,000 yen (ca. 700 GBP) for those coming from other regions.

The competition is held over three rounds and around 20 chosen candidates will conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (in the first and second preliminary rounds) and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (in the final). As the competition is not hosted by an orchestra (as it is with the Bamberg Competition or the Malko Competition), focus is on giving the contestants the experience of working with many different orchestras. “Another benefit of participating in this competition is that all the rounds take place in the beautiful Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, which has one of the best acoustics in the world. This itself is a valuable experience,” says Murata. “In recent years, we have also been trying to make the competition an attractive event for the general public. All the rounds are open to the public and the final, held in a concert format, is usually attended by an audience of about 1000 people, who can also vote for the Audience Prize.”

An exciting development for the 2021 competition is that all prizewinners will also be able to conduct the NHK Symphony Orchestra in a Debut Concert to be held in Tokyo in July 2022. As another new initiative, there will be an opportunity for the winner of the top prize (or one of the other finalists) to perform in a special Debut Concert in Hungary with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra at the Liszt Academy Concert Hall in April 2022. The winner will also be invited to perform at the Musical Olympus International Festival held in St Petersburg in May/June 2022. “When the prizewinners will conduct the NHK Symphony Orchestra, they will certainly get big exposure nationally, and the concert in Hungary is one of our new initiatives to get international exposure as well,” explains Murata. The cash awards are 2,000,000 yen for first prize, 1,000,000 yen for second prize, 500,000 yen for third prize and, additionally, a special Hideo Saito Award of 500,000 yen is given to the most promising contestant. The judges, however, reserve the right not to award a particular prize if they are not satisfied.

The 2018 first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa © MIN-ON Concert Association
The 2018 first prize winner Nodoka Okisawa
© MIN-ON Concert Association

The repertoire requirements for the 2021 competition have been slightly revised at Otaka’s request. “In Europe, it would be unthinkable for a conductor to have no experience in opera. Indeed, it is important to be able to conduct both symphonic music and opera,” he said. As such, an opera aria has been added to the second round, to see how well contestants perform in operatic repertoire. 

It has always been a feature of the competition to include a work by a Japanese composer and this year the contestants are required to conduct, in the second round, Three Symphonic Movements by Akira Miyoshi (1933-2003). Premiered in 1960, it’s an ambitious masterpiece from his early period, full of alluring orchestral timbres and sophisticated textures that reveals his French influence. Incidentally, in the first and second rounds, the judges are allowed to watch the contestants from any position in the hall, including close up on the stage, as from the perspective of the orchestral players. This could be quite intimidating, so contestants should to prepared for such scrutiny!

Speaking about Okisawa's winning performance in 2018, Murata says: “It was wonderful to see her gain strength and confidence through the rounds, and her rendition of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture in the final impressed the jury so much that the decision was unanimous. One of the judges said that the sound she produced in the Mendelssohn changed the orchestra completely.” Okisawa went on to win the prestigious Besançon conducting competition in 2019, is currently a scholarship holder at the Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker and assistant to Kirill Petrenko and has been signed up with artist agency KD Schmid. In Japan, she has conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra in August and the Nikikai Opera’s production of Merry Widow in November. Her success story will surely inspire many young conductors to participate in this competition.

“Many directors and heads of Japanese orchestras attend the competition to look for future talent and we feel that their expectations are growing,” says Murata. “Our main aim is to provide the widest opportunities for young conductors.”

Click here to find out more about the competition. Applications, online or via post, will be accepted from 1st February until 6th May 2021 (Japan time).

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