Classical: Nothing of the circus

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The Independent Culture
AT THE launch of the Sixth Leeds Conductors' Competition, the chairman of the jury, John Carewe, declared that as a fledgling conductor he had gained a lot from conducting competitions. He'd learned, he said, not to do them. Winning previous Leeds Conductors' Competitions certainly didn't harm Sian Edwards or Martyn Brabbins. That fact alone must have encouraged the thirteen men and three women conductors prepared to stand up and be stood down.

For Edinburgh-born Garry Walker, a recent Junior Fellow in conducting at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music, fate must have seemed against him. Alphabetically last among the competitors, he was left with no choice in the draw for the first chamber music round, rehearsing Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht.

Having come successfully through the preliminary rounds, he drew the short straw again for the finals with the Fifth Symphony by Sibelius, a composer he professes not to like very much.

In the event, as Sibelius said of his Fourth Symphony, there was "nothing of the circus" about Walker's performance at the final concert in Leeds Town Hall. Instead, while managing to bring out the heroic qualities of the work without any evidence of interpretative egotism, Walker built up the symphony with an obvious feeling for balance and proportion. Even the crashing chords - described by Donald Tovey as "Thor swinging his hammer" - at the climax of the tricky last movement, were brought to a perfectly controlled final cadence. The English Northern Philharmonia, more accustomed to operatic repertoire as the pit band of Opera North, rose to the challenge of the unknown score and conductor, with some expressive woodwind commentary, homogenised string textures and particularly striking brass.

Suddenly it was Walker's night. The audience, which instinctively backs a winner, voted him their favourite for the audience prize. Judging panel and orchestra unanimously agreed on Walker as outright winner, with a first prize of pounds 2,000 and the offer of a string of conducting engagements throughout Britain.

Earlier, in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, joint runner-up Matthew Rowe seemed assured in matters of rhythm, phrasing and balancing of lines, but less secure in capturing the music's forward momentum.

Despite Damian Iorio's obvious musicianship, listening to him conducting Elgar's Enigma Variations was a bit like looking at a carefully restored portrait of each character presented by a slightly over-cautious curator.

All three finalists, however, clearly have potential that is worth developing out of the spotlight of the competition arena, and with more opportunity for detailed preparation with an orchestra.

The jury, made up of Opera North music director Steven Sloane - whose own conducting teachers included Eugene Ormandy - and Brian Pidgeon, former percussionist and now General Manager of the BBC Philharmonic, will no doubt have plenty of advice to give, though what words of conducting wisdom can be expected from fourth panel member, Opera North boss Richard Mantle, is less clear.