Donatella Flick Conducting Competition 2004 – Final

Cosi fan tutte – Overture
Appalachian Spring – Suite
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Biloen
Claus Efland
Fabien Gabel

Lord Birkett (Non-voting Chairman)
Mauro Bucarelli
János Fürst
Patrick Harrild
Jan Latham-Koenig
Michel Plasson

Award presented by HRH The Prince of Wales

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Whilst we were waiting for the (admirably quick) Jury to make its decision, the feeling in the Hall was that Fabien Gabel would win. He did. Whether he, or either of the other two Finalists, was an obvious winner is a moot point: there seemed a case for adjudicating a joint-second prize – to Gabel and Claus Efland. But this Competition requires that there should be a non-shared First Prize.

From Monday morning through to Tuesday evening, at the Royal Academy of Music, twenty contesting conductors were whittled down to three. Those remaining each conducted the LSO in the overture to Cosi fan tutte and a work chosen by lottery. Maybe each of the Finalists was unlucky in being given music that they were not wholly sympathetic with, and while the two lots of 50-minute rehearsal periods allocated to each conductor corresponds to ‘reality’, the choice of repertoire is another thing. Certainly the three works for this year’s Final are masterpieces. Conducting Appalachian Spring, Claus Efland (aged 30), from Denmark, in some respects produced the performance of the evening, for while he didn’t always draw the necessary sentiment from the music, he was sensitive to the music’s poetry and chose some apt tempos. It’s difficult music to bring off, as the LSO’s less than pristine playing showed, and Efland did at least work within the orchestra, and also conducted the most interesting account of the Mozart.

Surprisingly, given that Death and Transfiguration has featured in recent LSO seasons (twice with Previn, once with Pappano), the playing was tentative. Yes, rehearsal-time is minimal, and Peter Biloen (from Holland, a late entrant, presumably to replace a dropped-out candidate) set too-slow tempos and too-low voltage and the piece never got off the ground let alone reach transfiguration; moreover numerous uncertain solo entries suggested vague direction from the podium. Nevertheless, his economy had elegance. His Mozart was expressive and articulate (although the woodwinds never quite clarified every note in any of the renditions of this work) but his phrasal distending and points of emphases didn’t always communicate to the orchestra.

Fabien Gabel (aged 29 from France), like the other two Finalists, opted for reduced strings for Cosi, just three double basses – how nice if one of these conductors had opted for all the strings, something ‘gloriously old-fashioned’. Gabel’s was a bland view of this music, anyway. The Shostakovich symphony, as a conception, was very disappointing: no irony, wit, buffoonery or behind-the-scenes tension, with tempos consistently too quick, and workaday efficiency and loudness substituting for any identification with the music. But, maybe, Gabel simply learnt the piece in case he had to conduct it, and he seems to have used the rehearsal time well: he drew the best playing of the evening and the LSO sounded more like its old self. Gabel now spends a year with the LSO as Assistant Conductor; hopefully he’ll have the time of his life and one wishes him all the best.

The next Donatella Flick Conducting Competition is in 2006 – keenly anticipated, too.

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