Donatella Flick conducting competition, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Donatella Flick endowed her competition in 1990 with the aim of advancing the careers of young conductors, offering them a platform, and helping establish their international careers. She has achieved her aims: a host of young names (not necessarily first-prize winners) have been made at this major international competition that takes young hopefuls from across Europe, pits them against a student orchestra (from the Royal Academy) and then puts three finalists alongside Sir Colin Davis's London Symphony Orchestra.

Donatella Flick endowed her competition in 1990 with the aim of advancing the careers of young conductors, offering them a platform, and helping establish their international careers. She has achieved her aims: a host of young names (not necessarily first-prize winners) have been made at this major international competition that takes young hopefuls from across Europe, pits them against a student orchestra (from the Royal Academy) and then puts three finalists alongside Sir Colin Davis's London Symphony Orchestra.

Davis himself was among the Barbican's great and good at the final. So was Flick's royal patron, the Prince of Wales, who turned up for (he sheepishly confessed) his first competition, and added a spirited presentation speech.

Standing before a battle-hardened LSO may or may not be the most revealing test for assessing these finalists (nerve-racking privilege though it is). Eighty applied, and got whittled down to 20 quarter-finalists; each of these got full credits. This year's £15,000 winner was the promising and charismatic 29-year-old Fabien Gabel, who assists Kurt Masur at the Orchestre National de France.

Nine European countries (one Italian, Fabio Costa, was part-Brazilian) were represented; although none from the new East European accession states. Six of the last 20 were women; none made it to the final. And - this should lend confidence to future aspirants - the finalists had studied a clutch of instruments: piano, violin, oboe, clarinet, trumpet (two Frenchmen, including the winner, Gabel), percussion, and in one case (Stuttgart-trained Kerstin Bögner) the voice. One was Greek, five were British (none made the last three), including a high-flying acade-mic, and one - the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's Rebecca Miller - an ex-American. All were aged 35 or under: the British clarinettist Daniele Rosina, 25, was the youngest.

The judges - including the conductors Janos Fürst, Jan Latham-Koenig and Michel Plasson - could see at a glance that Gabel was the canniest and securest of the three.

The LSO gave the twee, understating Dutchman Peter Biljoen a fine opening burst for the (repeated) overture to Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte (a beautifully bowed national anthem clearly got them in the mood); but his slow-moving, flattish Tod und Verklarung (Strauss's Death and Transfiguration) felt more the former and less the latter. Despite an oddly gawky platform manner, Davis's young Dresden assistant, Claus Efland (a Dane) coaxed out - sometimes needlessly - many chirrupy effects from Copland's Appalachian Spring.

Gabel drew the third slot, and it was his perky yet dark Shostakovich Ninth Symphony that earned the plaudits. No Rattle or Harding yet - but he has some of the ingredients.

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