The celebrations in Manchester on Tuesday night weren’t just about football (City’s 7-0 win over Leipzig). Another competition was held the same evening with more than 200 entries from around the world being narrowed down to a shortlist of eight, three finalists and one deserving winner. The goal of International Conducting Competition Siemens Hallé to appoint the next Assistant Conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. (Wipe your image from this job as portrayed in the film tar, which I have sworn never to mention again, but must for the sake of accuracy.) The assistant role has been around at the Hallé since 2002 – the first holder of the title was Edward Gardner, now Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – but the competition itself is new . Delyana Lazarova was the inaugural winner in 2020 and is now completing her successful two-year stint in Manchester.
There is a lot at stake for everyone. From last week’s flurry of conversation, it was clear that many in the audience had been following previous rounds (judged by an international panel of seven) and had views and favourites. In addition to working alongside Mark Elder, who is now nearing the end of his long tenure as the Hallé’s music director, the assistant has to lead the youth orchestra and be involved in the many outreach projects in nursing homes, schools and hospitals. To be able to conduct like any of Mozart’s finalists Marriage of Figaro Overture is not enough.
Each then played a remarkable orchestral work: Pablo Urbina, 34, from Spain, had arguably the most difficult assignment with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3. The work’s organic growth and intractable formal mysteries were expertly resolved by Urbina, prompting a lively response from the players evoked. Agata Zając, 27, from Poland, demonstrated Stravinsky’s flair and sovereignty Firebird Suite, surfs her technical challenges and takes on the challenge of the work’s grand conclusion.
The winner was the youngest on the shortlist: the American Euan Shields, 24, who is still studying at the Juilliard School in New York. His Mozart had vigor and risk, even if that resulted in a disorganized ensemble, but he got by with Elgars Enigma Variations with authority, charm and a natural sense of pace and flow. As Elder noted when announcing the results, the question he keeps getting asked is, “What does a conductor actually do Do?” The answer is: a lot that cannot be seen from behind. The communication and musical intelligence to express phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, tempo and articulation requires an immediate relationship with the players. The views of the Hallé musicians, as well as those of the youth orchestra that had worked with the finalists in a previous run, fed into the final score. Good luck to Shields, but also keep an eye out for the runners-up, all winners on their way.
The Canadian soprano Barbara HanniganThe path to conducting led through an intrepid singing career. Many composers have created works for their high register virtuosity. Last weekend, for health reasons, she refrained from attempting both ventures as part of her residency with the London Symphony Orchestra. She conducted but turned over the solo of the last movement in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 to Aphrodite Patoulidou. The versatile Greek soprano, who also used to be the lead singer of a heavy metal band, was part of Hannigan’s important Equilibrium Young Artists initiative.
Hannigan’s gestures are sculpturally fluid. She uses her hands as if holding the sound in her fingers, sometimes spacious, sometimes light as a feather, sometimes rich and compressed. This caused some stains in Messiaen’s splendor L’Ascension. In the symphony, on the other hand, her approach was analytical and detailed. Mahler leaves nothing – and everything – to chance, and litters the score with multiple levels of instruction. Within a few pages, he specifies: gradually, do not rush, very leisurely, leisurely again, hold back. How to differentiate? Hannigan does exactly what the composer asks. Not all conductors do this, no doubt fearing the whole performance will collapse. At times, Sunday’s report was dangerously ponderous, but also thought-provoking. Hear it on Radio 3 March 24th. Hannigan, it was announced last week, will conduct the opening concerts of the new LSO season: a confirmation indeed.
At the Royal Opera House, another conductor, Antonio Pappano, who learned his skills as a pianist working with singers, has spun gold from storeroom dust. Turandot, in Andrei Serban’s production, with designs by Sally Jacobs, was first shown in 1984 and has since returned to Covent Garden at least 15 times. Pappano, one of the best contemporary Puccini conductors, has spoken of his ambivalence towards this unfinished work. This was his debut conducting it live in the theater (he also just recorded it with a different cast).
These reservations are understandable and shared by many of us. Based on a Persian legend revised in the 18th century, Turandot lacks humanity, except in the character of the slave Liù (sung with compelling grace by Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, in the first of two casts). The hero Calaf is in love with the ruthless princess of the title, an invention he hardly knows. Given his indifference to the fate of his frail elderly father (sung superbly by Vitaliy Kovalyov), one could say that the lovers deserve each other. Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf, smooth, powerful and urgent in Nessun dorma, was a good match for Anna Pirozzi, imperious in the title role of Ice Maiden. In Pappano’s hands, the ROH orchestra on fire, the score gleamed and crackled.
The ping, pang, and pong episode in Act 2 can feel endless. Here it took on the atmosphere of a thriller. The whistle of a Chinese gong, muffled brass, insistent pizzicato cellos whispered menacingly while the trio of evil functionaries (superb works by Hansung Yoo, Michael Gibson and Aled Hall) sang about riddles and severed heads, tossing skulls. Experience wild excess and spectacle at cinema screenings – live on March 22nd and rebroadcast on March 26th. The Turandot‘s long and spectacular reign cannot last forever.
Star rating (out of five)
International Conducting Competition Siemens Hallé ★★★★
Turandot is at the Royal Opera House, London until April 13th