Malko is reminding us what conductors do

Andrew MellorThu 26th April 2018

The Malko Competition in Copenhagen is throwing up plenty of surprises this week, but reminding us of some irrevocable truths too

Two days before the start of the Malko Competition for Young Conductors – which Gramophone has been live streaming since it opened on Sunday – I found myself in the middle of Norway with the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. In addition to being a superlatively talented exponent of her instrument’s capabilities, Weilerstein has a perspective on the Malko Competition that few can match. In 2009 her brother Joshua won the triennial competition. When the next contest came round in 2012, her boyfriend (now husband) Rafael Payare won it.

If Weilerstein somehow hypnotized the jury from afar in those consecutive competitions, she kept tight lipped about how she managed it. Anyway, what she had to say about the art of successful conducting was far more interesting. ‘I talk to my [cello] students about really feeling the rhythm of a piece in their gut, so that you can centre the pulse and centre the ensemble,’ Weilerstein said. ‘That is what great conductors do, so that with one gesture, you know exactly where they want the sound to come from.’

It was interesting to dive into the Malko Competition on Sunday morning with those words ringing in my ears. The competition was founded in 1965 by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, which still counts Herbert Blomstedt as its Honorary Conductor. There are few musicians alive who can ‘centre the pulse and the ensemble’ like Blomstedt can.

But while we see the art of conducting embodied so lucidly and magically in a conductor like Blomstedt, we forget that he has benefitted from decades with which to hone his craft – to gauge how that inner pulse might best be radiated, to all manner of different ensembles from different continents and with hardly a second thought.

The contestants at the Malko Competition, the youngest of whom is 23 (and will appear in the final), have faced an entirely different situation this week. In the first round, they were asked to walk out in front of a foreign orchestra, under the gaze of a high profile jury and live television cameras, and forge their interpretations of works by Beethoven or Mozart in the space of just 15 minutes.

We saw many different approaches to that treacherously awkward situation in the first round of the Malko Competition. Some conductors tried humour, others flattery. But soon enough, we started to notice which ones had earned the orchestra’s heartfelt respect, and which ones merely their sympathetic admiration.

It is good to be reminded where that respect comes from. It comes not from technique, from flash gestures, novel interpretative ideas nor brilliant efficiency in rehearsal. It comes from that ability to ‘centre the pulse’ that Weilerstein talked about, and to do it without recourse to words. It comes from an ability to feel and unlock the musical and human nuances in the greatest scores we know, and to take them to another level of intensity, intelligence or ebullience as a result.

Still, we have seen some remarkable displays of technique this week. We have seen young musicians show they can work under pressure with a group of far more experienced new colleagues. We have seen young women and men make almost impossible decisions in a split second, and demonstrate the sort of efficiency within a 15-minute time frame that would impress an airline pilot. Only occasionally has the weight of the occasion, the glare of the cameras and the significance of the prize – €20,000, contracts to conduct 24 symphony orchestras from Stockholm to Suzhou and a year of mentoring from Fabio Luisi and Jennifer Spencer – pushed someone off balance.

In the three finalists who will battle it out tomorrow evening, and in a few of the semi-finalists too, we have seen all those qualities added to that essential ability to convince a large group of musicians that one person’s feeling for that ‘inner pulse’ is the one to follow. The three finalists have proved what a natural process it is by virtue of the fact that each of them embodies the task with such a different physicality. Shut your eyes, and each of them draws a different kind of sound from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra too.

This will by my sixth year covering Malko competitions and my first commentating in detail, live, on every single wrist-flick via Gramophone’s live stream. I am convinced that there lies within our three finalists a level of talent the competition has not seen before in that time. I am sure we will hear the names Anna Rakitina, Ryan Bancroft and Alessandro Bonato resounding far into the future.

But among these three musicians, who have grown steadily through the week and showed humbling levels of fortitude, character and diligence, there can be only one winner. The first movements of Brahms’s First, Second and Fourth Symphonies are all that lie between one of these musicians and the start of a major career. If the final is as electrifying as the heats have frequently been, it will be quite a show. And you can watch it all right here, tomorrow night from 18.30 CET, at gramophone.co.uk.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is a Gramophone reviewer and freelance journalist - he writes widely on opera, classical music and Nordic culture for magazines, newspapers, orchestras and opera companies in the UK and in Denmark, Finland and Norway

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