The hazards of conducting

‘Just play what you see,’ said Lennox Mackenzie to the orchestra before the competition proper began.

They did just that at the opening of Mozart 39, one of those slow introductions that a conductor has to decide whether to conduct using four slow beats to a bar or eight faster ones. Most importantly of all, they need to tell the orchestra which they decide on! If it’s not clear, some players will see one, some the other and you can imagine the noise that results.

If that was the first hazard that tripped up today’s first competitor, Christopher Ward (the problem was quickly resolved), the second had a different kind of obstacle to negotiate. Being somewhat shorter in height, Elim Chan had first to lower the conductor’s stand provided. That may seem easy enough, but these things are different from one venue to the next, each with its own adjustment mechanism, and you’re nervous, and you don’t want to tip your scores on to the desks of players in front of you, and mostly you don’t want to look foolish before you’ve even had a chance to get going, and if only someone would come to your rescue…

Fortunately, she showed coolness under pressure before embarking on a punchy Beethoven 1, one of the three set works for today’s round. The other is Bartok’s Divertimento, a jagged, folky three-movement piece for string orchestra that is an obvious contrast from the more classical Mozart and Beethoven. It has great Hungarian bucketloads of character, whether in its dancing passages or its more lugubrious moments. But do our conductors have what it takes to bring that out? It’s not as easy as it sounds: of the 5 who appeared in the first part of this morning’s session, only one really seemed to get beyond the surface. But I’m not saying who!

DFCC candidate conducts Guildhall Symphony Orchestra on day 1