Not a bad way to kick off a conducting competition: show the competitors what an orchestra can do without a conductor. Ten minutes before the 2012 Donatella Flick competition proper is due to start, the orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music is warming up by playing through Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony when the 20 competitors poke their heads round the door.
Supposedly this is to give them a quick look at the room before they set off on their 15 minute audition. But hearing the orchestra under their own steam will have been a reminder that a conductor is merely one cog in the orchestra machine.
The prospect of appearing with the orchestra is one of the motivations for the competitors, firstly in Sunday’s grand finale round, in which three of them will appear, and ultimately as the orchestra’s assistant conductor. That appointment is one of the prizes on offer, along with £15000, enough to keep someone in batons for more than a lifetime.
But first, the competition. Day one sees 20 conductors, chosen from a total 187 applicants, put through their paces with the Guildhall orchestra. At the end of the day, 10 will be picked to go through to day two. Three of them will make it to the grand final – a public performance with the LSO at the Barbican.
The Schubert is one of three pieces on the menu for the first round of the contest. The competitors have been asked to learn Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony and Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes too, and the pieces present a range of challenges. Will the conductors set a good speed for the Schubert, getting the right balance between flow and hesitancy? Will they communicate a sense of grandeur at the start of the Mozart without it sounding heavy-handed? And that last movement – it really can sound out of control if the conductor keeps trying to push it faster. What about Stravinsky’s tricky rhythms – will they manage to avoid doing anything that puts the players off as they try to negotiate them? That’s a real no-no.
Most important of all, will they be able to do all this and so much more without talking too much? There’s nothing that an orchestra dislikes more than a conductor who talks all the time. Well, apart from a conductor who seems more interested in how he looks than what his players are doing. Or who says one thing and does another. Or who has nothing to say at all. And anyway, what gives them the right… Remind me, why they are there again?