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)