Backing Britain. The Seventh Leeds Conductors' Competition.

Matthew Sims explains to John Robert Brown why contestants must be British.

Whether I'm in Bergen, Bamberg or Beijing, when I say that I live in Leeds, two things are inevitably mentioned: Leeds United Football Club, and the Leeds International Piano Competition. Beyond these shores, Leeds is associated with little else. Certainly one rarely hears mention of the Leeds Conductors' Competition, and I've always wondered why it has never been promoted as an international affair. When I spoke to Matthew Sims, the guiding force behind the event, this was the obvious question. Why is the Leeds Conductors' Competition restricted to British-born contestants?

"All of us here have debated whether we open it up to European participants," says Matthew, who is Principal Music Officer at Leeds. "When we've discussed this with previous competitors, the feeling from our young conductors is, "Please don't. We have so little opportunity in this country to actually stand in front of a major symphony orchestra and carve away, to see if we've got it or not."

"If we accept people from all over Europe, when there are so many opportunities there already, then we're making it even harder for our young aspiring conductors. It may not be in keeping with current European Union sentiments, but we wanted to give our guys and girls a chance of competing on an equal footing when they're applying for jobs around the world, competing with conductors from other countries."

This year the Leeds Conductors' Competition takes place for the seventh time, between 18th and 21st of September. Begun in 1984, according to Matthew Sims it's the oldest major conducting competition in the UK. Previous winners at Leeds have been Sian Edwards (1984), Grant Llewellyn (1986), Martyn Brabbins (1988), Philip Ellis (1992), Brad Cohen (1994) and Garry Walker (1999).

It's an impressive list. But wouldn't the competition have been even more impressive had it been open to all comers?

"That's not the point," says Matthew. "It's major in terms of watching the career of a conductor. There are very few like that. It might even be unique. There's the Donatella Flick competition in London, which is a major event. Mrs Flick spends a lot of money on it. She pays for the LSO and imports important conductors to form a high quality jury. But the main prize for the winner is a bursary for further study. It's not actually saying, 'This conductor''s ready for a career, here are twenty-odd engagements with international orchestras, go away and make a career of it.' Whereas this is what the Leeds competition is set up to do. We are the next stage, though we often end up competing with the Donatella Flick competition for column inches about the actual event. But in terms of launching careers, they've not had that many successes."

Matthew is a modern man. Young - not yet forty - he is a constant presence at all of the serious music events in Leeds. He also serves as a governor of Leeds College of Music and, to judge by his conversational references to football and popular television programmes, he is plainly in touch with the contemporary world beyond classical music. Within the sphere of serious music and orchestral conducting he's certainly done his homework.

"That's the real problem for young conductors in Britain. There are various arguments put forward to explain why they struggle here. If you look at the letterheads of UK orchestras, there are no British names. I can't think of one major UK regional orchestra that has a British conductor, apart from Mark Elder at the Hallé. You have to ask yourself, ''Why is that?'' Why is it that Finland has got a load of them? Finland, a country of five million compared with our 59 million? There is Osmo Vanska with the BBC Scottish, Sakari Oramo with the CBSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who''s now with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who comes here regularly to Leeds with the Finnish Radio Orchestra. How can a country of that size bring forward talent of that quality?"

"It can't be because of our education system, because there is still a large number of great youth orchestras. The British National Youth Orchestra has an international reputation. There is still a lot of peripatetic music teaching going on - not enough, but still a lot. We have some of the finest music colleges and conservatoires in the world. So it's not that we're not producing the musicians - or potentially the conductors."

It's a very good point. I ask Matthew to answer his own question.

"It's the next step on. These potentially great young conductors - how are they gaining experience in front of a professional symphony orchestra? In Finland there are structures that take them through the conservatoire system. Then there are apprenticeships with orchestras, which promote them and give experience. That doesn't happen here. There are few opportunities for young conductors to gain experience in front of a professional symphony orchestra. Abroad it's different, and not just in Finland. The vast numbers of opera companies in Germany, for instance, where there are many, many more than here. They give apprenticeships and conducting posts for young aspiring conductors. Not here. So this is why the competition is extremely valuable. Not only does it give aspiring conductors the chance to try out and gain experience. It answers the question, 'Can I make it or not?' 'Am I any good in front of eighty musicians who probably know more about their instruments than I do?' Then, if they win it, there's a structure in place, with the engagements with professional orchestras, to go on and forge a career. And if it doesn't work, at least they've been given the opportunity.

There's work for the winner. People who enter our competition don't do it for the financial reward to the winner. A couple of thousand pounds is neither here nor there, compared to some of the big competitions around the world. The Leeds Piano Competition, for instance, has a first prize of £#163;12,000. In the Conductors' Competition it's about engagements that accrue to the winner. You've got around sixteen of the major UK orchestras. All the major regional orchestras have offered an engagement to the winner - subject to final negotiation, obviously, about fees. So, if they win, they get an RPO date, a CBSO date, a BBC Philharmonic date, and so on. They'll have a chance to begin to get some sort of exposure for themselves.

Because the competition is every three years, we are like an actor who is only as good as his last film: we're only as good as the last competition. No competition has a great winner every year. Even the Leeds Piano Competition has to recognize that.

The Conducting Competition has had some good winners. Sian Edwards, who won the first competition, was the first woman to conduct at Covent Garden. She became music director with ENO at the Coliseum before Paul Daniel. Martyn Brabbins was a winner in 1987. He launched his career from winning the Leeds Conducting Competition. Now he's a regular face on television. He conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra regularly. Those are our two great successes. You could argue that they would have had a great career anyway, had they not won the competition. But it certainly was the starting point of their career.

The last winner was Garry Walker. He was extremely young, and had only just graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music, at twenty-one. He was a really big talent. Regularly now guesting with all the UK orchestras, he has a post with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and has recently become music director of the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra. When he won the competition, it was in July. He did a few things over the summer, tried to get some engagements. By the nature of orchestral planning those engagements tend to be some time in the future; they're not immediate. And he got a phone call in September from the RPO, one of the orchestras offering him a date. They said that Danielle Gatti - who was about to open their new subscription series in the Barbican - was indisposed. Would Garry like to come down and open their season?

He was terrified. Shall I? Shan't I? It's a very big gig if you get it wrong. It's very public. But he decided to do it, and he did it extremely well. They were delighted with him. He's been back a couple of time to the RPO. Because Garry's been a high profile winner, albeit it still quite young, when I was phoning around this year saying, 'Will you offer an engagement to our winner?' it was immediately, 'Yes.'

Had we had a weak winner, who'd done nothing, then the response would have been, 'Well, I'm not sure about that.' Garry is a talent who will go on and make a great success."

I put the point to Matthew that ever since the nineteenth century there has been a feeling that one couldn't make it without a foreign education, or an exotic foreign name. Didn't Elgar hanker after a Leipzig education? Weren't Leopold Stokowski and John Barbirolli both Cockney born and bred? Isn't that attitude still alive?

Matthew argues that in some respects things have changed. He cites Simon Rattle as an example. "The publicity that used to surround the CBSO and Rattle has been moved lock stock and barrel to Manchester. You never see the Hallé out of the broadsheets. People are vastly interested in the way that Mark Elder is turning round the fortunes of that orchestra. It's on the up. There's now talk of two great orchestras in Manchester. Before it was just the BBC Philharmonic. Formerly, every time the Hallé were in the papers it was because of their problems, financial or otherwise. Now it's the opposite. I think the support would be there if we had a great conductor, but are there enough opportunities for these people to come through and shine?

"Yet from a promoter's viewpoint I'd agree with your point about the British preference for foreign names. Putting on Leeds International Concert Season, tickets walk out of the door for foreign orchestras. They have to be promoted very hard for British orchestras. It's always amusing, if not frustrating, that some of our better concerts are by UK orchestras, which play to an extremely high standard. Our finest concert last year, among all the great things we had, was the Opera North Orchestra's performance of Mahler Two. It was an amazing performance, rehearsed to an incredible standard. Steven Sloane used the building by putting the soloists up by the organ.

"Afterwards, people were dumbstruck. They were still in their seats half an hour after the concert. They hadn't moved. I have never seen that before. We had to put the lights out to get them to move, just as they do in a pub! That season we'd had the Oslo Philharmonic, the RPO with Gatti - they did a marvellous Mahler Five - but this was as good as anything we'd had in the season. Yet, even with being Mahler Two, it hadn't sold as well as, say, the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. Theirs was the final concert of the season. It sold out by subscription last September. There were no single tickets.

In that respect, the public do tend to gravitate to the foreign orchestras and the foreign names.

But because there are so few British conductors, if you get a good one and support him there's a massive interest in that appointment."

We talk about the amount behind-the-scenes work entailed in organising such a large event.

"Applicants send in CVs, a video of themselves conducting, letters of reference. With two jury members I sit down and watch all of the videos. A long day's work. We received sixty applications, and will accept sixteen. When the competition first began there were around thirty accepted, whittled down quite slowly. When Paul Daniel took over as chairman of the jury, he felt that contestants weren't getting enough time in with the orchestra. They weren't having any great benefit in progressing through the competition. So we halved the numbers we accepted. In every round each competitor is given much more time with the orchestra. We treat it much more like a seminar than a straightforward competition. There is interaction throughout the sessions, between the jury and the conductors."

And the repertoire?

"We don't simply say, 'You've got to do this.' There's a choice. It's ridiculous to present them with something they don't know. That doesn't happen in the real world. No conductor approaches a concert not knowing what he's going to conduct. On the other hand there's no point in saying, 'You're only going to conduct this,' giving them six months to do it, and not be able to try out different techniques and various styles. So we have a concerto round, a contemporary music round, and standard repertoire. They can choose from a number of pieces. The final night concert is prescribed. This time it is The Firebird and Beethoven Seven. That's because we want to make a decent concert as well. There's no point in standing up in front of an orchestra with empty seats in the hall, because it''s all about engaging an orchestra and communicating. The audience themselves have a vote. I think that's where Pete Waterman got his idea for Pop Idol! We were doing it years before him.

There's a separate audience prize. We actually had an audience prizewinner who was different from the first prize winner, and the audience prize winner was the one who went on to forge a career, while the winner of the actual competition didn't. There's a serious point to that: the important ability to engage an audience."

My audience with Matthew is at an end. It's the week of the World Cup Football Tournament. Matthew has arranged to meet some friends in the pub, to watch the England game, and it's time to go.

"Studying an international competition," he says, with a smile.

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine. Not to be used or quoted from for any purpose without permission.
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