7th Leeds Conductors' Competition, Town Hall, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

You might not imagine that Trondheim, nestling within a fjord on the north-west coast of Norway, has an awful lot in common with Vienna. But there is at least one thing: an unusually high proportion of the population seems to walk around with cellos strapped to their backs, violins under their arms, or horns slung over their shoulders. Trondheim appears to be a surprisingly musical place.

You might not imagine that Trondheim, nestling within a fjord on the north-west coast of Norway, has an awful lot in common with Vienna. But there is at least one thing: an unusually high proportion of the population seems to walk around with cellos strapped to their backs, violins under their arms, or horns slung over their shoulders. Trondheim appears to be a surprisingly musical place.

It might simply be that the annual chamber-music festival, now in its seventh year, draws them out in higher quantity, but the evidence of the concerts themselves – they display an unusual degree both of involvement by the local music-education institutions and of audience enthusiasm – argues against such an assumption. And the festival both feeds on and nourishes that involvement: its visiting artists strut their own stuff, of course, but they also coach Trondheim music students, some of them barely in their teens, and musicians from further afield – this year chiefly Russia and Poland.

It's cleverly organised: young ensembles – string quartets and piano trios – are chosen to join the festival's "Academy" for coaching by the professionals. The best of that lot then go forward to a competition, which includes a work commissioned from a prominent Norwegian composer for the occasion; victory brings the promise of engagements across Europe. But even the groups that get knocked out come away with a consolation prize, in the form of bookings for concerts in far-flung Norwegian communities that don't normally hear any live music.

Provincial audiences are notoriously conservative, but with a composer-in-residence (a Norwegian and an international figure, year about), the Trondheim festival ensures a healthy admixture of contemporary music in the diet. This year, the eminence was Luciano Berio, whose Sequenzas for solo instruments were lettered through the week as through a stick of rock, with an orchestral concert midway. Most touchingly, he listened as the children of the local Saturday-morning music-schools played his 34 violin duos.

The imported stars assisting a panoply of Norwegian talent were two Swedes – the trombonist Christian Lindberg, whose account of Berio's Solo almost beggared belief, and the cellist Frans Helmerson – and the Nash Ensemble, which is such a regular feature of British musical life that one tends to forget what towering performances they can give.

And Trondheim has cracked a problem that the rest of classical music has yet to face up to: half the faces in the audience are well under 20, some of them quite obviously still at school. What can we learn from them to help readjust the age-cohorts in our own concert halls?

MARTIN ANDERSON

Conducting may not be an obviously competitive sport, but there is no shortage of tournaments to help young hopefuls carve their way, if not to an immediate career transformation, at least on to a higher rung of the professional ladder. Billed as the longest-established of its kind in Britain, the Leeds Conductors' Competition is safely out of the intense spotlight of London and of television cameras, with a jury of non-metropolitan experts and practitioners, and lively support from a canny Yorkshire audience. It's not exactly the Oscars, but it can take pride in having launched the careers of Siân Edwards and Martyn Brabbins. In the case of Garry Walker, winner in 1999, it was this competition that clinched his decision to lay down his cello bow and take up the baton professionally. This year's announcement of Paul Watkins as first prize-winner may deprive the world of another fine cellist.

There wasn't much doubt as to who should carry off the top award in the final orchestral concert at the end of a week of preliminary rounds. Out of the three male finalists, from 16 competitors – of which, disappointingly, only one was a woman – the audience and the jury were in complete agreement, giving Watkins both the £3,000 top award and an extra £1,000 courtesy of the audience ballot. His reading of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was not only extremely assured, it sounded fresh, dynamic and thoroughly persuasive. Tempos were well-judged, woodwind textures were finely balanced against the clearly articulated string sound of the Orchestra of Opera North, and in his steady yet purposeful approach, Watkins never imposed his own ego.

The surprise was in the placing third of Benjamin Wallfisch. Not only was it a first in the history of the competition – previously, there have been two runners-up, no second and third placing – but it was a curious and surely unwarranted gesture by the jury against a competent contestant. After all, isn't half the conducting battle a confidence trick anyway? If Stravinsky's Firebird Suite occasionally seemed to lack natural flow in its linear ingenuity and rhythmic elaborations, the primitive force of "Kastchei's Dance" seethed with vigour.

It's difficult enough to compare conducting style and technique in such opposites as Beethoven and Stravinsky, but Elgar's Enigma Variations, which opened the concert, come with too much baggage to make competition material. Despite his carefully executed performance, Toby Purser's colourless interpretation didn't breathe any new life into Elgar's musical portraits yet he walked away with second placing and, like Wallfisch, a meagre prize of £1,000.

The possibility of engagements with orchestras around the country is probably not the most attractive aspect of the first prize to a serious musician like Watkins. But kudos – increased exposure and the beginning of a reputation – is infinitely more valuable than cash, and this may turn out to be the cementing of another major conducting career.

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