Feature Report: Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav Mahler Dirigentenwettbewerb 2013 [International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition]

Written by: Douglas Cooksey

Jonathan Nott (Principal Conductor of Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and President of the Jury)
John Carewe (conductor)
Louwrens Langevoort (Director of Cologne Philharmonie)
Jonathan Mills (Director of Edinburgh International Festival)
Albert Schmitt (Managing Director of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)
Markus Stenz (Music Director of City of Cologne and Gürzenich-Kapellmeister)
Rolf Wallin (composer)
Wolfgang Fink (Managing Director of Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
Christian Dibbern (Member of Orchestral Board of Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)

June 2013, Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg

David Danzmayr, Lahav Shani, Marina Mahler & Tung-Chieh Chuang. Photograph: Peter Eberts

One of the delights of Bamberg’s International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition is its sheer unpredictability. One never knows whether one is going to find a new Gustavo Dudamel, a future Herbert von Karajan … or nothing. This year, the fourth competition of this triennial event, was no exception.

The word ‘competition’ is a slight misnomer because with such a collegiate atmosphere there are no real losers. The final group of ‘participants’, in this case twelve (whittled down from a field of over 400) enjoy the opportunity to work on a wide range of repertoire over the better part of a week with a top orchestra, and to receive feedback from an eminent Jury as well as – particularly valuably – from orchestra members. Notably, all 12 semi-finalists stayed till the end of the event. The final rounds are open to the public, who attend in droves, and the event attracts other movers-and-shakers of the musical world.

Bamberg itself is an extraordinary setting. A small city untouched by Allied bombing, and a World Heritage site where sometimes time seems to have stood still, the city’s centre is a mediaeval-baroque jewel. Wandering the deserted streets late at night one could have stepped into a set for Die Meistersinger.

Bamberg also possesses a world-class orchestra. If cultural capital is measured not just in bricks and mortar but also in Lebenskultur Bamberg’s orchestra is as much part of the city’s heritage as any building, which needs to be protected at all costs. At the end of the Second World War the remaining players of the orchestra of the German Theatre in Prague re-formed just across the border in Bamberg in the unpropitious surroundings of an old church, but, then, working with a series of great conductors including Joseph Keilberth, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss and Eugen Jochum, it became one of the world’s musical treasures.

Few other orchestras could hope to stage an event such as this. Daily morning and afternoon sessions lasting a week, interspersed with constant contact with the contestants, would place a strain on a more metropolitan orchestra. In Bamberg, however, many players are able to cycle to the concert hall along riverside paths bordered with hawthorn and wild flowers. Also, working so intensively with young and relatively inexperienced conductors and repeating the same repertoire up to six times (as here in the semi-finals) could place an intolerable strain. But, the Bamberg musicians seem to take it all in their stride.

This year the Jury benefited once again from the presence of Marina Mahler (the composer’s grand-daughter) who had been unable to attend the previous Competition three years ago. Brought up by Mahler’s widow Alma and a direct link with the lost world of Mitteleuropa, Marina Mahler is very much more than a figurehead. She has a genuine empathy for the hopes and fears of young conductors, and she nurtures their subsequent careers with a passionate belief in their abilities.

On this occasion, for the first time, Jonathan Nott was unable to be present because of flu. On a happier note the other Jonathan, Mills (the outgoing Director of the Edinburgh Festival) was knighted in the Queen’s Honours List, which was announced during the Competition. Jonathan Nott who has now been at the helm of one of Europe’s major orchestras for even longer than his more famous compatriot in Berlin deserves similar recognition.

Of the 400 entrants this year, 54 were women. By the time of my arrival (June 11) this field had been reduced to six. One woman remained (Dalia Stasevska of Finland), two were Asian (Tung-Chieh Chuang of Taiwan and June-Sung Park of Korea), and there was the competition’s first Afro-American semi-finalist (Joseph Young of USA).

Although entrants must be under 35 it is inevitable that some will have had more experience in front of an orchestra than others; this year two of the semi-finalists, Young and David Danzmayr had extensive experience with professional orchestras, whereas others such as Tung-Chieh Chuang did not. This points up a recurring conundrum. Should the Jury make allowances for less experienced competitors if they show exceptional musical potential or should they opt for the competitor who is more experienced even if less musically interesting? Successive Bamberg juries have wrestled with the problem.

Semi Finals

Lahav Shani. Photograph: Peter Eberts

Reflecting the ever-increasing number of entrants and the global status of the Gustav Mahler Dirigentenwettbewerb, this year there were six semi-finalists rather than four. All the contestants were required to rehearse the same three pieces: Haydn’s Symphony No.92 (Oxford), Berg’s Lyric Suite and Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (from Rückert-Lieder), movement-choices allowed from the Berg and Haydn. Mention must be made of Andrew Schroeder, the rich-toned baritone soloist in the Mahler who sang tirelessly for six conductors with very different conceptions of the piece.

Joseph Young: Resident Conductor of the Phoenix Symphony and a recipient of a career development award by the Georg Solti Foundation, Young led a confident, large-boned account of the Haydn (first and third movements) although his tendency to fastish tempos militated against ideal clarity with a relatively large string band. More impressive was the deeply felt account of the Mahler, which had stillness and soul. Rather more questionable was the Berg, highly chromatic and particularly demanding when it comes to sorting out the wood from the trees.

June-Sung Park: The South Korean impressed mightily with a superbly crisp and exuberant Haydn (same movements). This showed a keen awareness of period practice – minimal vibrato, hard sticks for the timpani and a slimmed-down orchestra – but above all this was a real performance, rejoicing in Haydn’s genius for the unexpected. It was played with a tingling enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the Berg, although adequate, felt carefully observed rather than fully experienced, and the Mahler was altogether less moving.

Dalia Stasevska: a vibrant larger-than-life Finn, she erupted onto the stage with all the forcefulness of a high-explosive shell. No-one was going to ignore this super-confident lady. She attacked Haydn’s Minuet and finale with turbo-charged aggression, and her full frontal assault on this most gemütlich of Haydn symphonies left one reeling. Perversely, Stasevska’s volatile intensity then produced curiously distinctive results in the Berg, which was febrile in the extreme. The Mahler, too, had its moments, with a breath-taking pianissimo at one point, but the whole experience was so uneven that she was never a serious contender.

Lahav Shani: only 24, Shani combines multiple talents, double bass player, pianist and conductor. Perhaps by comparison with the unpredictability of the Finn, the laid-back Shani felt like a safe pair of hands and the voice of moderation. The Haydn (last two movements) was traditional in the best sense of the word, with sensible tempos and polished playing. The Berg was similarly impressive, and it was clear from his comments to the orchestra that Shani had understood the genesis of the piece. With a comparatively swift tempo the Mahler was something of a disappointment, as if Shani were shying away from the full depth of its emotion.

Tung-Chieh Chuang: The following morning’s session brought some of the most rewarding music-making from one of the competition’s least-experienced conductors. He succeeded in producing crisply elegant Haydn, sorting out the intricacies of the Berg, if without plumbing its depths, and, above all, found extraordinary finesse in the Mahler, during which he paid exemplary attention to the soloist.

David Danzmayr: an Austrian and a conducting scholar of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra where he came under the influence of Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez. He was the most experienced of the semi-finalists, and it showed in various subtle ways, not least in his fluent rehearsal technique and penetrating the he first piece from the Berg Lyric Suite. His Haydn (iii & iv) was similarly impressive, although the Minuet was perhaps a little too hard-driven, whilst the Mahler was almost in the same class as the preceding contestant.

After a short pause the three finalists were announced, and none of them were a surprise. Lahav Shani, the youngest competitor but one, who as an orchestral player instantly commanded the Bambergers’ respect; Tung-Chieh Chuang, who despite his relative inexperience showed outstanding musicality and potential (under him the BSO sounded more beautiful than any of the others); and the very experienced David Danzmayr.


The Final for the three conductors was rehearsing the first movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, and it took place later the same afternoon (13th June).

Lahav Shani is clearly able to get results. However, he offered no special insights and did himself less than justice. Much was too loud, the very opening notably without atmosphere, dynamics consistently several notches above Mahler’s restrained markings. Shani then rehearsed in great detail but without any obvious improvement.

By contrast, Tung-Chieh Chuang was revelatory but not without flaws. The opening was magically distant, tempos were relaxed and dynamics restrained so that one could clearly hear the bass clarinet’s descant on the opening ‘Wayfarer’ tune on the cellos, and the movement’s central section had that sense of sound hanging weightless in the air. Where one could criticise Chuang was in his structural sense – he built a tremendous climax but then failed to make the Vorwärts drangend (increase in tempo) that gets one back to the Hauptzeitmass (the main tempo) ahead of the sprint to the finish. Technically, he also had a problem getting synchronicity from the woodwinds at the very opening, and the last bars of the movement came unstuck, but it was wonderfully musical.

Danzmayer started with the advantage of being thoroughly in command of technical issues and also with a better structural understanding of the music, although one could have quibbled a tendency to over-heat or push the tempo at significant moments. Danzmayr, a native German speaker, was fully able to communicate with the orchestra, talking as the musicians played. However, with Chuang’s visionary account – if very much a work in progress – still ringing in our ears, Danzmayr’s seemed less than the whole story.

Imagine one’s surprise when after roughly half-an-hour Lahav Shani was pronounced the winner with Tung-Chieh Chuang and David Danzmayr sharing joint second place. Members of the Jury subsequently commented that it had been a very tight decision and that the noose had tightened considerably in the Final, with the second-placed contestants giving their best. Of course, the Jury had heard the three contestants in all the preceding rounds, but I suspect that most people were surprised that it was not the other way round, with Danzmayr and Chuang sharing joint-first.

Winner’s Concert

This Mahler concert took place the following evening, attended by various dignitaries preceded by the inevitable lengthy self-congratulatory speeches from politicians (by contrast Wolfgang Fink, the Bamberg SO’s Managing Director, and Marina Mahler both spoke briefly and movingly).

The programme comprised the first movement of the First Symphony, the two middle movements of the Sixth (scherzo and Andante, in that order) and the much-heard song. The Bamberg Symphony was on best form. Shani conducted from memory. The First Symphony was a considerable improvement on the previous evening – finally we got off-stage trumpets at the Symphony’s opening – and the Sixth’s Scherzo was delivered with enormous Heft, its changes of metre handled deftly. The Andante was given the full treatment, its soaring string climax underpinned by some thunderous double bass playing, but a little more restraint would not have come amiss since too often the strings struggled to be heard against brass and woodwind. The song formed a curious conclusion but as one of the most heartfelt moments in all music, it laid the competition to rest.

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