Wanted: great conductor in the making. Must have... what? Musicianship, technique, command, obviously, but that's not enough.
Wanted: great conductor in the making. Must have... what? Musicianship, technique, command, obviously, but that's not enough. And though the first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, held in Bamberg, Germany, didn't exactly lift the veil on the requirements, it gave pause for thought - and, in the process, found a winner of such calibre that I'd lay money on his prospects.
Conducting competitions aren't renowned for finding stars, so this was lucky for a first-time event designed around the Bamberger Symphoniker, an orchestra that fell sick a few years ago but has returned to strength under its British music director, Jonathan Nott. On home territory, it is now ranked among the top five German symphonies, but it remains little known abroad. Hence the idea to stage a high-profile event and name it after Mahler - who had few associations with Bamberg but has a granddaughter, Marina, who was instrumental in getting the competition going.
A governing idea behind it all was that conducting isn't only about beating time and bowing to the audience: 90 per cent of the job takes place unseen by the paying public. It's called rehearsal. And the Mahler Competition is entirely based on rehearsal technique, with a final public concert that only happens after the winner has been selected. But from what I saw, arriving for the semi-finals, it was clear that some of the contestants played the rehearsal game more conscientiously than others.
At least one of them, a Bulgarian called Ivo Venkov, ran his rehearsals as though they were performances, dispensing with the score (an affectation that did not impress the jury) and taking the music in long, unbroken stretches followed by a lot of soulful talk (which doesn't impress orchestras). Another, the Ukrainian Oksana Lyniv, scored higher on integrity but low on confidence. And a third, the Japanese Toshihiko Matsunuma, had things of value to say but wasn't clear enough in the saying.
So that left a 23-year-old Venezuelan called Gustavo Dudamel - which is the name to remember, because he won the €20,000 first prize. And not by default but with conspicuous brilliance. Opportunities for young conductors can't be vast in Venezuela, but Dudamel runs a youth orchestra there and seems to have picked up exactly the right experience in the process. His technique was sharp, efficient, focused, with an easy self-assurance. And he had the mystery ingredients: vision and charisma.