Conducting in the 21st Century

Andrew Mellor
Friday, June 11, 2021

Tomorrow night, we’ll know who has won the 2021 Malko Competition. The contest in Copenhagen has taught us plenty of lessons along the way...

Chloé Dufresne, one of the three finalists of this year's Malko Competition


Every month, Gramophone critics make value judgements about the art of conducting without actually seeing that conducting happen. That’s part of the craft of reviewing records. In a sense, it’s the purest version of music criticism there is – one that can’t be hoodwinked by suave gesture, physical good looks or the atmosphere of a live event. As Gramophone critics, we review what we hear and only what we hear.

All week in Copenhagen, followers of the 19th Malko Competition for Young Conductors have had a different perspective. We’ve watched as the art of conducting has been dissected, autopsied, laid bare before our eyes. At the competition, which invades one corner of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation every three years and has counted Gramophone as a media partner since 2018, we witness the birth of the conductor-orchestra relationship from every angle. In this case, it’s essential to see it happening as well as hear it. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

‘Whoever wins the final on Saturday will have a career made for them overnight’


This is my fourth Malko, and the jam-packed week never ceases to be an education. Not just for the contestants who battle it out for the top prize, but for everyone following the competition from inside the DR Concert Hall and around the world via the live-streams. ‘Conducting is a never-ending journey of learning,’ said one of the contestants, Anton Holmer, on his selfie introduction video. He is not wrong there.

As Gramophone critics, we listen intently to the recordings we are sent to review, and try to place the results in a broader interpretative and qualitative context. It’s easy to forget – and I’m sure some of my Gramophone colleagues would admit the same – that we’re often appraising the results of weeks, months and even years of work.

Watching Malko contestants try to reconcile the sound characteristics of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra with the special acoustics of its concert hall, their own take on a composer’s intentions, and the added dynamic of a concerto soloist has been a reminder of just how hard the job is. At Malko, they had just minutes in which to do it, while conducting repertoire from 250 years (including a brand-new work never heard before) and performing one 20th-century work with no rehearsal at all. I take my hat off to every single one of them.

In the week before Malko, I tend to research every piece being played, looking for technical traps, interpretative sticking points and technically tricky corners that will make my job in the commentary box a little easier (scouring Gramophone’s colossal archive for expert advice is part of the process). Inevitably, a conductor then comes along who renders all of that research entirely irrelevant – a conductor who appears to make everyone in the orchestra forget about technique and detail and start to deliver something at a different, more transcendent level.

A handful of Malko 2021 contestants have already delivered moments like that. Some are still in the competition, others not. When the three finalists were named last night, I scribbled some of my own thoughts on why each of them arguably deserves to perform on Saturday. As I wrote it, I was looking for a verb to describe how Chloé Dufresne from France managed to tap and channel the magic of Britta Byström’s A Drama In The Air, the specially written work that the contestants tackled in Round 2. I realised, of course, that the verb was staring me in the face: ‘to conduct.’


Whoever wins the final on Saturday will have a career made for them overnight. In addition to the €20,000 first prize – which will just about cover a few rounds of drinks in Copenhagen – they will be invited to conduct 24 major symphony orchestras from Dallas to Beijing and benefit from a close on-going relationship with Fabio Luisi, jury chair and the DNSO’s chief conductor (with added strategic career advice from Jessica Ford). In a mark of Malko’s significance, this Autumn its last three laureates all assume new positions with orchestras. The 2012 winner Rafael Payare becomes Music Director Designate of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

Still, coming after a strange period in all our lives, Malko 2021 has reminded us that the art of conducting is more broadly communicative. In the future, it must exist as much away from the great orchestras and concert halls of the world as within them. Many will leave Copenhagen this weekend with memories of Chloe Rooke, the young British conductor who lit the competition up with her sense of music’s joy and communicative potential.

After her elimination in Round 2, the still-smiling Chloe took some time to tell the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s Celine Haastrup about Street Orchestra Live, her professional ensemble that performs seven concerts a day ‘for anyone anywhere’ – on streets, yes, but also on beaches, in parks, in prisons and in hospitals. ‘Sometimes audiences don’t want to come into a concert hall,’ Chloe said, a potential problem for a conductor who ‘wants to share and communicate music to everyone.’

Her solution was to take the music to them – not setting out to convert them into regular concertgoers so much as to ‘make a difference to their day.’ There is surely as much validity in that as there is in thinking deeply, as Gramophone does, about the interpretative nuances of a Mahler symphony. What seems clear from Malko 2021, is that there’s a new generation of conductors who recognise their responsibility to do both.

Watch the final of the Malko Competition for Young Conductors via Gramophone from 17.15 BST on Saturday 11 June: Malko 2021

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