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theartsdesk in Katowice - energy and imagination at the Fitelberg Conducting Competition | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Katowice - energy and imagination at the Fitelberg Conducting Competition

theartsdesk in Katowice - energy and imagination at the Fitelberg Conducting Competition

Talented young conductors from around the world compete for a coveted prize

Su-Han Yang - fresh and vital BrahmsAll images Wojciech Mateusiak

Music competitions are big in Poland. Every five years the classical music world turns its attention to Warsaw for the International Chopin Piano Competition, with much commentary and speculation, and a succession celebrity laureated to maintain its global reputation.

But all bases are covered here, and in the intervening years, Warsaw also hosts the Moniuszko Vocal Competition, the Wieniawski Violin Competition is held in Poznań, and in the Silesian capital of Katowice, the main event in the city’s cultural diary is the Fitelberg Competition, named after the Polish conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg and now one of the world’s most important contests for young conductors.

Katowice is an unlikely centre for classical music, a coal town stagnating as the mining industry around it declines. But it is home to two orchestras and an impressive three state-of-the art concert halls, recently built venues for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, and a hall for the Silesian Philharmonic, newly refurbished and now named in honour of lifelong Katowice resident Henryk Górecki.

Fitelberg Conducting CompetitionThe Philharmonic Hall organises the Fitelberg Competition, a huge undertaking, given the scale of the event, this year with 47 participants, a jury of 11 conductors, and, most significantly, the full Silesian Philharmonic onstage throughout the three rounds. But the cultural impact clearly makes the logistics worthwhile: as well as continuous coverage in the press, the last round is broadcast on national radio, and the final concert on national television.

The contest stage is a curiously synthetic environment for conductors. Unlike instrumentalists or singers, they must demonstrate not only performance skills but also effective rehearsal, leadership and communication with the orchestra. So the sessions are a hybrid of rehearsal and performance, with the candidates seeking a rapport with the players (often in spite of a language barrier) while crafting their interpretations. One of the competition’s aims is to promote Polish music, so, along with the standard repertoire, stretching from Mozart to Brahms, the conductors must also give convincing performances of Polish composers including Moniuszko, Karłowicz and Szymanowski. The Szymanowski – his Second Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony – proved particularly challenging, especially for the delicate balances required in the orchestral textures.

Although the competition mostly went to plan, it wasn’t without glitches. Had there been a prize for succeeding against the odds, it would surely have gone to the Czech conductor Aleš Kománek. He was eliminated at the first round, but after protests from the jury, it was discovered that this was a computer error, and he was duly reinstated, going on to the final, where he was drawn for the first audition of the day. But he woke with severe back pain, and was advised by a doctor to withdraw. He went ahead nonetheless, his session rescheduled for the end of the day. Kománek took fourth place, a respectable position, especially given his turbulent week.Conductor Modestas BarkauskasThis year’s was the 10th Fitelberg Competition, since the founding event in 1979, and displays around the hall gave a flavour of previous contests. It also raised the perennial question for any music competition – where are they now? The laureates of previous competitions, what has winning done for them? The first event was won by the German conductor Claus Peter Flor, whose impressive, though occasionally controversial, international career has reflected well on the competition that helped to launch him. The German conductor Michael Zilm won the 1987 contest, and has returned several times, including this year, as a juror.

Though the competition always attracts competitors from around the world – 28 nationalities were represented this year – the prestige it offers is mainly at the national level. As well as the main prizes, the finalists are also invited to give concerts with other orchestras around Poland, and in many cases this leads to significant careers in the country. The winner of the last competition, the Australian conductor Daniel Smith, has been a regular visitor to Poland in the five years since his victory in Katowice, and now has a significant profile here, as well as in his adoptive home of Italy. In a timely announcement just the day before this year’s contest began, Smith was named Direttore Principale of the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, a prestigious position in the Italian opera world.

So what of this year’s talent? From the second round, the six finalists were clearly ahead of the crowd. Most candidates were proficient, but only a few were able to demonstrate a strong personality and keen interpretive insight in the short time allotted at the podium. Of the finalists, the winner, Taiwanese conductor Su-Han Yang (main picture), clearly stood out, although discussions in the foyer were animated about the merits of the others, with some suggesting that positions two to five could have been given in almost any order with justification. The final concert featured the top three, and all gave excellent performances. Third prize winner Modestas Barkauskas (pictured above) specialises in opera in his native Lithuania, so Verdi’s Force of Destiny Overture was a good fit. He’s a dynamic and focused conductor, and his clarity of communication with the players here no doubt serves him well in the opera pit.Conductor Bar AvniSecond place went to the Israeli Bar Avni (pictured above), the only female participant to make it past the first round (surprisingly, as three of the six finalists last time were women). Avni conducted the Polish work on the programme, Moniuszko’s concert overture The Fairy Tale. Her rehearsal technique and interpretive approach had seemed pedestrian in the contest, at least from the stalls. However, the orchestra clearly disagreed, as the prize awarded by the orchestral players went to her, and her performance of the Moniuszko more than justified her ranking.

And finally the victor, Su-HanYang, with a stirring performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, its impact all the more impressive for sounding fresh and vital, despite repeated hearings during the competition. Yang, still only 28, conducts with an infectious energy and lots of movement, but always to clearly musical ends. For a work that can sound overly intellectual and ruminative, this was a Brahms Four of energy, colour and imagination – a rousing end to a colourful week in Katowice.

  • Fitelberg Conducting Competition: full results here.


Accidentally eliminated, then injured - had there been a prize for succeeding against the odds, it would surely have gone to Aleš Kománek

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Barkauskas is from Lithuania, not Latvia

Thanks for spotting this. Correction made.

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