Written by: Douglas Cooksey
The Second Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition
23-28 April 2007
Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg
Marina Mahler (Honorary member)
Jonathan Nott (Jury President; Principal Conductor, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
Herbert Blomstedt (Honorary Conductor for Life, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
Hans Graf (Music Director, Houston Symphony Orchestra)
Mark-Anthony Turnage (Composer)
Paul Müller (Intendant, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
Rolf Beck (Intendant, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival)
Serge Dorny (Director-General, L’Opéra National de Lyon)
Ernest Fleischmann (Consultant)
Peter Pastreich (Consultant)
Christian Dibbern (Member of the Orchestra Board of the Bamberg Symphony)
In a world where the value of musical competitions is frequently called into question, the “Bamberg Symphony Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition” represents a gold standard and a beacon of artistic responsibility. In the first place, the actual surroundings – the beautiful relaxed mediaeval city of Bamberg – are far away from metropolitan pressures; in the second, the structure of the Competition – lasting the better part of a week – allows time for performers and jurors alike: strengths and weaknesses can emerge naturally over three rounds.
The first competition, in 2004, produced the Venezuelan, Gustavo Dudamel, who was recently appointed Music Director Designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the ripe old age of 26. By contrast, this second Competition produced no outright winner – a fact reflected in the award of second, third and fourth prizes only plus an award for special promise but no first prize – however in one sense all the finalists were winners as they all had distinctive merits.
Two facts are especially worthy of note. This year’s three finalists included young conductors from three continents, the Far East, the Americas and Europe. Like Mahler’s music, it could be said that Bamberg has now gone global in its reach and importance. The other arresting fact is that two out of the three finalists were women, surely a first in a major conducting competition, and just as importantly they both fully deserved to be there on artistic and technical merit.
The composition of the Jury and its balance reflected the care that lay behind the competition planning. Besides Jonathan Nott (Music Director of the Bamberg Symphony) and Paul Müller (the Orchestra’s Intendant), the jury also included inter alia the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, Ernest Fleischmann (doyen of orchestral managers), Herbert Blomstedt, Hans Graf (Music Director of the Houston Symphony) and Serge Dorny (Director of Lyon Opera and formerly Managing Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra). The jury also included Marina Mahler, the composer’s grand-daughter who clearly cares passionately about the development of young artists.
Amongst the audience – open to the public from the semi-finals onward – were an eclectic mix of orchestra managers, concert agents, reviewers and broadcasters as well as a fair proportion of the citizens of Bamberg who flooded into the Hall for the Finals and the Prize-winner’s concert. For a city of just 70,000 the Bamberger Symphoniker, founded in 1946 from the remains of the German Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, enjoys a level of local support more appropriate to a successful football team.
By the time of the semi-finals on 26 April the original fourteen aspirants had – of necessity – been whittled down to six:
Shi-Yeon Sung, South Korean (31)
Yoel Gamzou, USA (19)
Jérémie Rhorer, France (33)
Ewa Strusinska, Poland (30)
Benjamin Shwartz, USA (28)
Christoph Alstaedt, Germany (27)
A year can mark a long time in the development of an artist, especially a conductor, and it is worth noting that at 19 the youngest contestant, Yoel Gamzou, is fourtenn years younger than the oldest, Jérémie Rhorer. By the time of the semi-finals two Americans, two British, one Latvian, one Mexican, one Russian and one Egyptian had been eliminated, although it was typical of the spirit of the Competition that those who had not made the cut stayed for the subsequent rounds.
All the contestants were required to conduct two Mahler songs drawn from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (with an excellent hard-working baritone, Michael Nagy, of whom we shall doubtless hear a great deal more in future), a contemporary work (either a piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage or Bruno Mantovani) and a movement from Mahler’s First Symphony. With each segment lasting approximately 45 minutes this combination provided the best possible test of a range of conducting abilities – as an accompanist, of ability to sort out a complicated contemporary score, and in a large-scale symphonic movement. It was also a very good barometer of each contestant’s rehearsal skills. Jonathan Nott proved himself adept as a rigorous but unobtrusive ‘enforcer’, the schedule adhered to with an efficiency which would have done credit to Deutsche Bahn (the German train system).
Semi-Finals (26 April)
Opening the semi-finals came Shi-Yeon Sung. Winner of the 2006 “Georg Solti Competition” in Frankfurt, she will shortly join James Levine at the Boston Symphony. Despite her obvious technical assurance and clear rehearsal style – her commands were issued with staccato efficiency – at this early stage of the competition she disappointed, eliciting a harsh sound from the normally gemütlich Bambergers.
By contrast, Yoel Gamzou, aged 19, presented a far more engaging front. Whilst his comparative inexperience showed in various ways – his stick technique let him down in the Turnage piece’s jazzy opening and sometimes he stopped the orchestra too frequently which could be de-motivating – nonetheless his musical instincts about the finale of the Mahler symphony were unfailingly right with a fine sense of when to press on, when to hold back and above all in the actual quality of sound he obtained with the orchestra consistently playing well within itself and never forcing its tone. All this was particularly gratifying and bodes well for the future.
Initially, one’s impressions of the French conductor, Jérémie Rhorer, were extremely positive. In the Mahler songs he clearly engaged with the words and in Bruno Mantovani’s Time Stretch (on Gesualdo) he demonstrated both an eminently clear stick technique and fine rehearsal skills. Up to this point it seemed that he would go straight into the Final. However things went awry interpretatively in the finale of Mahler’s symphony which was not well-focussed with its joins poorly handled, the big string tune giving too much too soon and the orchestra consistently allowed to play too loud.
After enjoying a quick but anecdotally-rich lunch on the town with Paul Moor, Berlin resident since 1949, fierce critic of the Iraq War and elder statesman of American musical critics, the competition resumed with Ewa Strusinska who is currently doing a two-year Fellowship in conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. Although Strusinska drew an agreeably warm sound from the orchestra in the two songs, ‘Trost im ungluck’ and ‘Urlicht’, both here and in the Turnage there were some problems of ensemble; however the symphony’s second movement Ländler was delivered with a fine combination of heft and schwung.
The penultimate semi-finalist was the Curtis Institute-trained American Benjamin Shwartz who bore a more than passing resemblance to the young Leonard Bernstein; he conducted both the difficult Turnage and the finale of the Mahler with the sort of chutzpah one might have expected from the master himself. Whilst this was a super-confident performance and although there was little doubt as to the likelihood of his progressing to the finals, nagging doubts set in during the Mahler symphony as to the substance of the music-making, which was bland.
Music-making of a similar degree of confidence came from the German Christoph Altstaedt. In the Turnage it was clear that he had internalised the score sufficiently well to be able to keep his eyes on the orchestra and concentrate on atmosphere and detail; the finale of the Mahler was competent rather than visceral, but I fully expected him to progress to the Final.
When the results were announced – Shi-Yeon Sung, Strusinska and Shwartz – there was an audible intake of breath. A good many people were taken aback that Altstaedt had not progressed, not least Altstaedt himself.
Finals (27 April)
What a difference a night makes. When we reconvened the following morning for the Final, Ewa Strusinska and Michael Nagy gave a quite magical ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ coming as though from another world, quite an achievement at 10 in the morning. This alone would have justified her inclusion in the Final. As it turned out, the symphony’s first movement was almost equally impressive. Although it could be thought to have been over-leisurely, it was invariably musically interesting, holding one’s attention throughout those extended passages where sounds hang almost motionless in the air. There was a gentle singend quality to the music, too, which was entirely apt.
Shi-Yeon Sung gave the same combination of music as Strusinska and the juxtaposition was highly instructive. In terms of control of the orchestra Sung is extremely impressive and never less than totally professional. The sound too was far less abrasive than it had been the previous day. However, at a more mainstream tempo, this was much less inward and, for all its assurance, it didn’t seem as though she were as in tune with the music’s roots. Symptomatic of this was her skipping the exposition repeat, without which the movement seems unbalanced.
As his opener Shwartz opted for ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, a marching song with a twist, which suited his more flamboyant nature. As previously, there was little doubt as to his ability to conjure what he wanted from the orchestra but the symphony’s first movement poses even greater interpretative problems than does the finale – how to manage stillness, points of departure and arrival (especially the movement’s climax) and detailed control of dynamics – and although Shwartz was undeniably effective there was limited sense of the music’s interior soundworld or what lies beyond the notes.
The jury retired, ostensibly for 30 minutes, and re-emerged some two hours later. The verdict – a judgement of Solomon – was that second, third and fourth prizes would be awarded to Shi-Yeon Sung, Benjamin Shwartz and Ewa Strusinska respectively. Particularly gratifying was the recognition of Yoel Gamzou, the youngest contestant, with a special prize.
On Saturday the 28th, Shi-Yeon Sung conducted the Prize-winner’s concert, which included the piece by Bruno Mantovani and a complete performance of Maher’s First.
On reflection, although questionable (as aspects of the final concert suggested), the verdict was probably the right one. It was certainly not arrived at lightly. Although less to my own taste, Shi-Yeon Sung was undoubtedly the most fully developed of the three winners in her ability to do justice to a wide range of music and control an orchestra. Judged purely on his ability to get an orchestra through a variety of music with confidence and panache, Shwartz deserved his ranking. However, on purely musical grounds my vote would have gone to Strusinska because – despite her relative inexperience with a symphony orchestra – she actually came closer to the spirit behind the music.
The hugely positive and encouraging aspect is that all four conductors had such contrasting strengths and all will go far. In that sense Music alone was the true winner.