Watching a conducting competition is a surreal experience

Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition
Barbican

It’s never easy to put into words what makes a good conductor, but it usually comes down to musings about chemistry, mystique and willpower: qualities thrown into focus by the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, which took place at the Barbican last week and was a big event, run in conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra and graced by royalty (Prince Charles, whose status at the prize-giving was signalled by a special cushion on his otherwise unspecial chair).

Three finalists went through their paces with the LSO, and choosing between them was a surreally strange task when you reflect that the conductor is the only person on the platform making no sound, other than the odd wheeze or grunt you don’t actually want to hear. His function (and it’s generally a he) is to draw sound from others, whose own talents feed into the result. Bad orchestras can play on autopilot and good orchestras will instinctively compensate for the shortcomings of whoever is waving that stick in front of them. Unravelling responsibility for the result is a contentious business.

But hearing three competition entrants in rapid succession, you certainly get to know if they do or don’t make a difference. And making a difference is ultimately what conducting is about. Of course, technique is important: establishing the beat, cueing the entries and finding the right gesture for the sound required. But more important still is to have a good idea about the score, be able to communicate that idea clearly and be able to persuade 80 sceptical musicians to like it as much as you do. Which is where the chemistry comes in.

To be blunt, I didn’t feel much chemistry with the three finalists last week. Jiří Rožeň, 23, from the Czech Republic, had a youthfulness that counted against him when it came to subtlety, and there was never quite enough control to feel secure. Mihhail Gerts, 30, from Estonia, had control and technical accomplishment to a degree that could have triumphed had he only brought more personality and daring into play. And Elim Chan, 28, from Hong Kong, had the daring without the polish, working too hard to get the sound she wanted. But it was Chan who won – largely because she was the one most obviously making something happen: not just waving a stick but also creating a performance. That the prize went to a woman sent an interesting message to the world.

Female conductors have a tough time proving they have the power to command an orchestra, and face discouragement at every turn; which is why it was not a great surprise that of the 225 initial entrants for the Flick competition, 220 were male. That Ms Chan made it through to the top proves her determination and ability. I hope she flourishes.