The three finalists of this year’s Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition were selected from the initial 20 candidates in two earlier rounds. Compared to some of the other prestigious conducting competitions, this three-day event is short and tightly-packed, but certainly boasts some distinguished figures from the conductor world on the jury – this year, Sir Antonio Pappano, Yuri Temirkanov, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Carlo Rizzi. Two current members of the London Symphony Orchestra, sub-leader Lennox Mackenzie (Chairman of the Jury) and bassoonist Rachel Gough, and the ever-elegant British soprano Dame Felicity Lott made up the rest of the jury.

The Duke of Kent and Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann © Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
The Duke of Kent and Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann
© Tristan Fewings | Getty Images

The three conductors that made it to the finals were Vlad Vizireanu (Romania/USA), Kerem Hasan (UK) and Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann (Germany). Firstly they each performed the overture to Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, and then shared sections/movements of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

The eldest of the three, Vlad Vizireanu at 31, opened the evening with a composed, score-less account of the La forza overture. What impressed me most about him was the weighty and sonorous sound he got out from the LSO – at the big tutti moments he probably drew the lushest sound from them. His baton technique was generally secure, although occasionally he had problems with keeping the entries together – perhaps it was nerves. Also, in the Verdi and Elgar it seemed he had prepared everything so precisely and he tried to micro-manage certain details which sapped the music's forward momentum. He was most relaxed in the second movement of the Symphonic Dances; the waltz flowed and he brought out the dark Slavic melancholy of the music at the end.

Vlad Vizireanu © Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
Vlad Vizireanu
© Tristan Fewings | Getty Images

Of the three interpretations of the La forza overture, I was most attracted by Kerem Hasan’s dramatic account. The tempo was certainly fast and had urgency, but more importantly, there was a fluidity and a sense of direction in his phrasing and he was able to shape the phrases with dynamics and articulation. For example, the beautifully hushed entry of Leonora’s prayer theme by the strings (marked ppp) gradually building up to its climax was magical. He kept his baton hand concise and clear but was very expressive with his left hand (often with clenched fist). In the Enigma Variations, I think perhaps he got the trickiest section – the theme and the first four variations – and though there was some thoughtful characterisation, he didn’t quite settle. On the other hand, he got to conduct the final dance in the Rachmaninov which had plenty of drive and youthful energy (punching out the Dies irae theme with his fist), especially in the outer sections.

Kerem Hasan © Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
Kerem Hasan
© Tristan Fewings | Getty Images

Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann took the most lyrical approach in the Verdi overture. Without score, one could see that he made sure that the players, especially the clarinet and other woodwinds, could sing their solos with ease and expressivity. Mostly he let the music flow naturally yet when he wants to emphasise something, he would intervene with strong downward gestures. I thought he was the best of the three in capturing the Elgarian sentiment and sound world. He took the middle section of the Elgar up to “Nimrod”; again coaxing a memorable solo from the viola in “Ysobel”, and the transition into “Nimrod” was so hushed and poignant that the audience held its breath. Later in the first Symphonic Dance, he displayed a strong sense of rhythm as well as his lyrical side, and his emphatic build-up just before the recapitulation was impressive. He smiled a lot at the musicians and had enthusiastic body language (we were able to see their faces and gestures on the two large screens) and one could see he had created a trust with the musicians. It was characteristic of him to acknowledge the solo players after the performance like in a concert.

Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann © Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann
© Tristan Fewings | Getty Images

At the end of the performance, I couldn’t decide on an overall winner. My favourite performance of the evening was Hasan’s La forza, but no one quite convinced me in the Elgar, and I thought each brought his personality to the Rachmaninov. The jury deliberations took about half an hour (what did Pappano think of the Verdi or Temirkanov of the Rachmaninov, I wonder?), after which Hoffmann was announced as the winner, receiving a prize of £15,000 and one year as the LSO’s Assistant Conductor. It’s worth mentioning that the jury members (except for Pappano) had listened to the earlier rounds as well (in repertoire ranging from Haydn to Stravinsky), and I am assuming that they would have formed their decisions over the three days rather than just on the final, like those of us in the audience. I certainly look forward to seeing Hoffmann involved in future LSO activities, but also wish Hasan and Vizireanu successful careers.

Sir Antonio Pappano, Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann and Kerem Hasan © Tristan Fewings | Getty Images
Sir Antonio Pappano, Niklas Benjamin Hoffmann and Kerem Hasan
© Tristan Fewings | Getty Images