In 2016, Niklas Benjamin Hoffman became the winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, after conducting the LSO in the Competition's final concert at the Barbican. Since then he has worked with the Orchestra as Assistant Conductor while establishing a diverse freelance career. We talked to Niklas about what happens over the three days of the Competition and what his advice is to the conductors who’ll be stepping onto the podium in 2018.
What’s it like to stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra for first time?
I was very nervous. I’d never conducted an Orchestra of that level before. They play well from the very beginning. So then what can you say to make it better? I was afraid they mightn’t respect a young conductor, they were enormously helpful and constructive. I could really let go.
What does an assistant conductor do?
There’s a lot of listening, and feeding back to the conductor about the sound! Then there are pre-rehearsals – I pre-rehearsed excerpts from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre for Simon Rattle, with a combined orchestra of young people and LSO players. Then I get some of my own projects, like schools concerts, to direct from beginning to end.
Step-ins can happen too. It happened in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It was by coincidence that I knew the piece, so I could do it! I learned the other pieces for the concert during the flight there.
What's been the impact of winning the Competition?
The Competition has definitely opened doors. I’m freelancing, and since the Competition I’ve been able to make a living from conducting, and I’m thinking of doing some opera work. At the LSO I’ve worked with some of the great conductors, like Sir Simon Rattle & François-Xavier Roth – they were really interested in what I was doing. Bernard Haitink has incredible wisdom and energy. They’re all different and have their own strengths.
You’re a composer too. Does that impact how you conduct?
Conductors have an idea of how the music is written. I know what it takes and so I have a feeling of how the music has to be taken seriously. There’s also the feeling of how at one point the music was being invented by the composer, and when I'm conducting I try to picture the music being created for the first time.
What advice would you give to the three finalists?
The first thing is to be prepared. There’ll be almost no time to look at the pieces on the day. Then keep calm! In my first rehearsal I was sticking too much on the details. In the second rehearsal I tried only to say the things that were really necessary. I trusted the musicians – they’ll help you and do everything to make it a good concert.
Can you talk us through the lead up to the final of the Competition?
In the first round you only get 15 minutes to rehearse three pieces with the Guildhall orchestra. It was so quick! The second round was more relaxed as you get 20 minutes. They were a great young orchestra and they understood how an audition feels.
I was quite nervous about the contemporary piece, but we looked at it after working with the soloist on the concerto … we’d had such great fun with the Prokofiev, I forgot about how frightened it made me! It made for a really constructive atmosphere.
Can you talk us through the final day? It’s when you step up in front of the LSO for the first time.
On the day you get two rehearsal periods. I was very excited to have made it that far, me! I was the first to rehearse in the morning. I conducted Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, then Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and the middle variations of Enigma. It took a while to realise how the Orchestra work. They improve every time they play.
Before the second rehearsal, I had time to decide what I’d do. I stuck to rehearsing the few spots that weren’t quite right, nothing else. With one of my Enigma variations, we rehearsed it once and I was overwhelmed. I just left it – we finished the rehearsal 5 minutes early – I thought I could only make it worse.