Names to conjure with, music to remember. The biennial Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition reached its culmination on 22 November, Saint Cecilia’s Day, with victory for 28-year-old Felix Mildenberger of Germany after a thrilling concert in which Britain’s Harry Ogg and Denmark’s Alexander Colding Smith gave him a run for his money.
All three finalists had launched proceedings with startlingly contrasted interpretations of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger in which, I felt, not everyone seemed to remember that the themes are operatic. Would the judging panel see it the same way?

That’s the paradox with music competitions. In the normal run of things, audiences attend concerts to relax and give their receptors a workout; but make it a knockout contest and we’re ringside for the main event. Favourites are cheered and wayward jury decisions (inwardly) booed. For all my own sacrosanct objectivity, there were times during the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, as at every such event, when I found myself on the verge of doing both.

Across two intensive days, a field of 20 contestants had been whittled down to a trio of survivors, none of whom can be accused of fluking their appearance in the final. And yes, they were indeed all men, although that hasn’t always been the case. Elim Chan for example, the winner in 2014, is now enjoying a fast-rising career. Watching and listening to the whole thing was a terrifically absorbing experience, and the temptation to play at being an armchair judge was irresistible. For what it’s worth, nine of my own ten choices made it through to day two, but the tenth to make the cut had been my personal number 20 so what do I know? I’m consoled by a suspicion that the individual in question didn’t trouble the scorers too much on day two.

It was surprising to note that the make-up of the judging panel favoured conductors over orchestral players by a ratio of three to two, not counting violinist Vadim Repin – four to two on the final day – but any concern that the baton flippers might drown out the instrumentalists’ voices was scotched by the outcomes. Few would argue that Jacob Joyce (Germany) belonged in round two with his strong, clear beat and his economical interventions with the young musicians of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, an admirable band who did tireless work before the London Symphony Orchestra took over on the third day. Chloé Dufresne (France) was clearly the pick of the four women in contention. (Yes, alas, that’s how few there were.) Her confidence and firefly energy were constantly at the service of secure musical readings.

Midway through day two, Jury chairman Lennox Mackenzie explained the process to Bachtrack. “All the repertoire was decided by the LSO board. On the first day there was the ‘Linz’ Symphony by Mozart, who reveals a lot about musicians, then some 20th-century Stravinsky, the Danses concertantes, while Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings offered conductors the chance to show their lyricism. And today we get started with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a tricky work to conduct, followed by the challenge of James MacMillan’s Tryst which has a lot of 7/8 followed by 3/8 and then a 9/16 and a 7/16 thrown in. So it’s testing.”

Conductors have such differing techniques that choosing ten to go through must have been tricky. “It was,” confirmed Mackenzie. “The standard has been good this year and we struggled for a bit. It became clear immediately that seven were going to go through, but we had a discussion about which three would join them.”

“I’ve watched conductors all my life and tried to follow them, and the difference between one and the next never ceases to amaze me. Some are acute, while others can be floppy, yet for certain works both attributes are valid.”

As a long-serving LSO sub-leader, Mackenzie did offer one clue to his own preference. “I do like to see a conductor who uses his hands as opposed to his mouth. Take Bernard Haitink: he has incredible authority in his hands. In rehearsals, if something happens he’ll say "We’ll just do that again" and it’s enough.”

Former winner François-Xavier Roth (2000) joined the judging panel for the final of a contest whose upper age limit has just been capped at 29. The Frenchman is now the LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, and the winner instantly becomes his podium colleague, since along with the cash prize he gets to be the LSO’s Assistant Conductor for a year. All of this must have weighed on the finalists’ minds during a 12-hour day that began with six hours of rehearsals with the tireless orchestra and ended with a three-hour concert presided over by the Duke of Kent and by Donatella Flick herself. Yet British finalist Harry Ogg found five minutes to chat to Bachtrack during a fleeting passage of down time.

“My approach to the whole week has been to go in and make music to the best of my ability and to enjoy it. And so far it’s all been really positive.” Did he hear any of his competitors’ performances? “No, it’s not useful. I’ve got to think of my relationship with these scores, not with other conductors. The fact that it’s a competition is irrelevant in terms of the way I work. I’ve done a lot of stuff now and I’ve started to develop a flow that is my way of working. If the judges don’t like that, then I’ll learn from it and move on. If they do, that’s cool too. I’ve just got to be myself.”

Ogg had to prepare a lot of repertoire for this competition, but he did have certain advantages. “Before I got selected, I’d already conducted several of the works before, but most of them were a long time ago and I’ve changed a lot as a conductor since then. It may well have been useful but it still felt like preparing everything from scratch.”

“I found out I’d got in at the end of July,” he continues, “and my first reaction was: how am I going to fit this in? I was so busy, and it was a distraction because I was due to spend two days rehearsing the Bergen Philharmonic for Ed Gardner – with loads of repertoire – so I had to make a plan. First Bergen, then six weeks of War and Peace with the Welsh National Opera, then Humperdinck’s Königskinder in Gelsenkirchen… And I had an insane travel diary, so I’ve just had to be organised and focused. And now I’m enjoying the ride.”

It’s a ride that was to end a few hours later when Mildenberger, whose own precocious experience across Europe includes a conducting post with the Orchestre National de France and the directorship of his own self-founded Symphonieorchester Crescendo Freiburg, took first prize. The German’s elegant panache in the opening section of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and as Repin’s accompanist in the finale of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no.2 helped him see off strong competition from the charismatic Ogg and Denmark’s idiosyncratically elegant Alexander Colding Smith.

Both Colding Smith and Ogg had looked to be shoo-ins for the final after round two; Mildenberger, on the other hand, had cut a less extravagant figure, attentive to the Guildhall students’ playing and willing to let the music run its course when the going was smooth. Yet while rehearsing Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (allotted time: 17 minutes) he alone had the confidence to break off and run sectionals in order to achieve the desired inner balance. He’s an intensely musical young man and a worthy winner.

It’s been a three-day kaleidoscope of musical talent and rewards. Poland’s Maciej Kotarba was dapper, elegant and persuasive – like Michel Dalberto but with a baton instead of a piano. Young Hermes Helfricht of Germany showed effortless command in his two appearances, but Swiss-born Sándor Károlyi’s evident sense of the music’s architecture didn’t take him past round one, much to my surprise. Still, it’s been heartening to watch the judges, international musicians like Yan Pascal Tortelier, Tadaaki Otaka and Sian Edwards, casually mingle with the gifted and resilient Guildhall players. And more than anything, perhaps, 20 busy young European conductors now have the score of Tryst under their belts. James MacMillan won’t mind that too much.


This article was sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra.