The Marriage of Figaro – Overture
The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite
Symphony in three movements
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 1 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Three intense days, twenty hopeful conductors whittled down to ten, then to three, the LSO replacing the Royal Academy of Music SO for the Final. The jury – Mauro Bucarelli, Jane Glover, Andrew Marriner, Leif Segerstam and Vassily Sinaisky, under the chairmanship of Lord Birkett – required to find a winner (the 2000 joint-first no longer an option).
Each of the finalists conducted the Figaro overture and one jury-given twentieth-century classic. Christophe Mangou did Stravinsky proud. He’s a choreographic conductor, one who can wave his arms around and it means something; if he wants a pianissimo he’ll do a knees-bend. Flamboyant he may be but his stick technique is always clear and he achieved some pugnacious rhythmic attack. Not everything came off in the last movement, either a lack of rehearsal – each finalist had just two lots of fifty minutes to get results – or he was unclear as to what he wanted. Nevertheless, this punchy performance, a tad brash and unkempt at times, held the attention. Mangou kept the first movement’s momentum right up to the last bar – important – and had a novel way with punctuation in the finale. In between, the balletic ’Andante’ was graceful, its mystical centre heightened in expression.
If Dimitri Slobodeniouk is now from Finland, he is a Muscovite and his Russian lineage shone through in Taras Bulba – rarely if ever has this music sounded so Tchaikovskian! Whether Slobodeniouk was helped or hindered by Colin Davis having conducted Taras with the LSO less than a week earlier is a moot point. There’s no doubt that Slobodeniouk imposed his stamp, yet events arrived sectionally, too often with a lack of tension. Slobodeniouk has an ear for colour and for finding the odd detail often overlooked. Whereas Davis caught the individuality of the music, Slobodeniouk lost its flavour. The simpering organ timbre in the final bars seemed more Ketèlbey than Janacek.
Slobodeniouk opted for full strings in Figaro and a tempo from the upper quartile – hectic in other words; quite delicate though if without many distinguishing features. Mangou’s moderately paced Figaro, with reduced strings, was quite beefy, woodwinds surprisingly reticent. Belgian Ivan Meylemans had a tempo in between, also reduced strings, and produced something more gallant, woodwind and horn details the best placed of the three.
Meylemans is Principal Trombone of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – I heard him play Christopher Rouse’s concerto in Amsterdam a few years ago – and he’s no stranger to conducting competitions. No doubt as a seasoned orchestral player he knows what a conductor should and shouldn’t do. His gestures were textbook, always for the orchestra and, to my ears, the LSO responded with the most integrated playing of the evening. This wasn’t a sensational Mandarin; it was the work of a musician who knows that Bartók’s illumination of the sleazy storyline is sufficient in itself. There was no lack of eerie seductiveness, visceral attack, atmosphere and textural explicitness.
Meylemans, for his musicality and ’inside’ conducting skills, was for me the winner – although quite how he would have combined the prize-winning year-long LSO association and his Concertgebouw duties is anybody’s guess.
The winner was actually Christophe Mangou, from France. Perhaps the difference between him and Meylemans is that Mangou has a flamboyance that doesn’t override the music and is capable of making things happen. He has charisma and that may have got him the winning vote. And a bouquet to the LSO – rehearsing all day, the players sailed through the evening with unflappable energy and professionalism. The next Flick Competition is 2004 – citizens of the European Union who will be 35 or less on October 1 that year are eligible.