Up beat

`A conductor should know exactly what he wants and how to get it.' Tommaso Placidi convinced orchestra and jury that he did in a new conducting competition.

Getting musicians to agree about anything among themselves isn't easy, but there's one topic on which you'll find a firm consensus, there just aren't enough conductors to go round. Well, not good ones, anyway. But at least there are also individuals who are trying to do something about it.

In the early Nineties, a music-loving former gymnast and ex-wife of a multimillionaire was intrigued by what was then an on-going musical epic - the process of finding the late Herbert von Karajan's successor as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. If filling that position was such a problem, she thought, what did this say about the other conductorships? So she decided to extend her already considerable financial support to the arts in England and Italy by starting up the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition.

After a few years of early development (ie teething troubles), this London- based biennial event now seems to have arrived at a settled format. For the fourth competition, held at the Barbican last April, 20 finalists were pre-selected from a Europe-wide line-up of 200 applicants. After two more rounds where each entrant rehearsed members of the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, the jury's final short-list of three shared a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. Each then accompanied violinist Leland Chen in a short solo work and conducted a version of Romeo and Juliet by either Berlioz, Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, with allocation of these decided by lot. The competition was won in some style by 32-year- old Tommaso Placidi.

Among the jurors was Thomas Martin, then the LSO's co-principal bassist, who spent the entire competition bar the final concert assessing each entrant from his familiar professional vantage-point on the Barbican platform.

"We all thought Tommaso was the most convincing by far," says Martin. "For my money he went over the top in the final concert with the Prokofiev, but that isn't what's important. What players need from a conductor is the sense that he's in command. He should know exactly what he wants and how to get it. Whether you yourself hold with it or not, that's just personal opinion. A conductor must impose himself on an orchestra and if he's good, players don't resent that. On the contrary, that way we know what we're meant to be doing."

Placidi himself is engaging and demonstrative company, with the evident ambition that's necessary for survival (let alone progress) in his profession tempered by a reliable sense of humour. Born in Rome in 1964, he started out studying the piano before an accident to his right wrist meant that his interest in conducting moved centre stage. Studying first at the Geneva Conservatoire (with an individual whom he diplomatically describes as "a great musician, but not a conductor"), he gained his diploma ("because you can't really get work without one") at the Vienna Music Academy and then began seriously to cut his conductor's teeth at the annual summer school at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena.

His first teacher there was the venerable Ferdinand Leitner, whom Placidi remembers as a formidable maestro with an insistence on technical clarity and a traditional, master-and-pupil style of getting things done. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky turned out to be a rather different proposition. "This wasn't a masterclass," says Placidi with a grin. "It was a court." Each session with the maestro, his pupils and the Chigiana Orchestra would culminate in yet another dazzling display of flamboyant pedagogy. "Then he'd send everybody away and say, right, Tommaso, come here, and tell me this, and this, and that. He was a world apart from Leitner, totally different. I learnt a huge amount from both of them." (Rozhdestvensky was also on the jury of last April's Donatella Flick competition. Admirably, reverential cronyism doesn't seem to be Placidi's style.)

What really matters (or should) about a musical competition isn't just the matter of one individual "winning" on the night, swinging from the rafters with his or her entourage, and then disappearing without trace over the subsequent months and years. Now operating in conjunction with the LSO, the Donatella Flick Competition rightly places just as much emphasis on the follow-up as on the competition itself. Besides a pounds 15,000 prize "to subsidise a period of specialist study and concert engagements", the winner is also offered a year's assistant conductorship with the LSO itself.

The terms of this deal were left open at the time - sensibly, since winner and orchestra might have got on like oil and water. Placidi, on the contrary, found himself conducting the LSO in the world premiere of Colin Matthews' Euro 96-related Machines and Dreams at the Barbican last June. He's now about to take charge of the first two concerts of the 1997 BT Celebration Series (including another world premiere, Stephen Montague's The Creatures Indoors).

"In a way it hasn't quite worked out as an assistant conductor's position usually does," he says. "Of course, I've being doing some of that. When Riccardo Chailly was rehearsing the first act of Die Walkure for a concert performance, he had me checking the balance in different parts of the Barbican auditorium. But I haven't been rehearsing the orchestra for the LSO's other conductors very much.

"On the other hand, what you don't normally get in an assistant conductor's job is the chance actually to conduct an orchestra like the LSO in a concert. It's a fantastic opportunity. To get concerts with good orchestras, you need management. You can't get a manager unless you can convince one of them to come and hear you, and you can't do that without concerts. I know people say that if you're a good conductor you don't need competitions, you'll get noticed anyway. It isn't so simple. When you're starting out, every chance you can get is so important."

His view of the potential long-term value of the Donatella Flick Competition is shared by John Lawley, the LSO's second oboist and current chairman of the orchestra's self-governing board. "Obviously we keep an eye open for up-and-coming conductors, as every orchestra does," he says. "The problem is that by the time we've usually noticed them, everyone else has too, so they can be hard to get hold of. And then when we do, there isn't time to develop much of a working relationship with them.

"It makes a real difference to be able to work with a young conductor over a whole year, so that we can get to know each other's way of doing things. And since not enough conductors are coming through anyway, it's good that the orchestra is committed to giving something back to the conducting trade by helping to bring someone on."

And the relationship is working out? "Yes, we think it is. One of the things we like about Tommaso is that he really does seem interested in getting to know the players - all of them. You'd be surprised how many conductors just talk to the leader and leave it at that"n

Tommaso Placidi conducts the LSO at the Barbican on Thursday at 7.30pm in the opening concert of the 1997 BT Celebration Series (0171-638 8891). Stephen Montague's `The Creatures Indoors' will also be performed in the BT Celebration Series by eight other orchestras nationwide to 20 June (0171-828 6913)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all