What was the application process for the DFCC like for you?
I guess the hardest thing about this is supplying suitable video material. I first applied for the competition in 1996, two years before I eventually won. (I was nowhere near ready for it, and was quite rightly kicked off after the first round.) At that time I was a Junior Fellow in Conducting at the RNCM and so I was only able to supply student video material from sessions there. For the 1998 application, I had already had two years as assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and they were kind enough to bend the rules and allow me to tape things with them which were more substantial. I knew that this first stage of the selection process is itself very competitive, and I was happy to get through that.
How did you prepare for the Competition, both musically and mentally?
Having had the brief experience in 1996, I already knew something of what to expect in 1998. One of the greatest pleasures of preparing for the competition is being given the opportunity to study a large pile of scores, without knowing which of them one might actually get to conduct.
After the two years as assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra I was better able in 1998 to understand the process and try to be philosophical about it. Knowing one is being judged, and being aware of the stakes, is the best way to become paralysed, and I tried not to make that mistake twice. Having said that, I think I was lucky to get through the first round – it was only after that that things improved, as I recall.
How would you describe your experience of the Competition and what were the main things you learned from the DFCC?
One of the best things about the way the DFCC is organised is that all the participants are encouraged to watch each other’s sessions, and from this arises a spirit of camaraderie and mutual support which I found very helpful and enjoyable. Many of those eliminated in the earlier rounds were encouraged to stick around and watch, and I remember very much regretting that I did not do this when I was eliminated from the competition in 1996.
But the main things I learnt from the competition all came later, as a result of winning it. This is another of the best things about the DFCC: one is not just given a trophy and a title and a load of money and sent off back into the wilderness. Those two years with the LSO were precious in all kinds of ways, and there isn’t a day goes by now that I don’t have some cause to be thankful for them and to draw on the things they taught me.
How did you feel on the day of the final round?
All the things one would expect! But I remember more the excitement of it than any sense of nervousness, or at least the wrong kind of nervousness. I had already got further than I expected, and I remember wanting to enjoy the experience, and not to have to try and remember only afterwards how it had felt to conduct one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I was also immensely lucky with the draw in being given a piece that I loved and knew well, and that even the LSO had not played for some years (Elgar’s In The South). I think perhaps this already made things easier for me than for my colleagues who had to do battle with the far more familiar La Mer and Don Juan. (So much to do with competition success is about luck. No different than what happens afterwards, really.)
How did it feel having only one short rehearsal on the day with the LSO?
At that stage, in all honesty, I think a short rehearsal was all I could have handled. That orchestra is so quick and brilliant that the time restrictions worked in my favour. There was no time for me to make a fool of myself.
How did you approach this to use your time to best effect?
My two years as assistant conductor in Bournemouth, between 1996 and 1998 were extremely helpful. I had conducted around 50 concerts with them in that period, most of them on very minimal rehearsal. This helped a lot in gauging how to approach this.
What might you do differently now, with more experience?
After the competition, when I was working more regularly with the LSO, I got into conversation with one of the senior principals in the orchestra who gave me one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever had: “Every week I sit here, and a new conductor arrives, and within the first few minutes of the rehearsal, it’s clear that he has an idea of the music in his head but he’s conducting that and isn’t really listening to us at all.” This was a wonderful insight for me at the time. So I would have listened to the LSO more, and showed I was listening to them.
Another anecdote: One of the jurors, Pinchas Steinberg, warned me after my rehearsal that he thought I was using too many strings for the Magic Flute Overture. Naturally, I respected his advice and intended to cut the orchestra down. (I think my two colleagues had already done so.) But I forgot, and only remembered when I glanced over at the row of 8 basses during the opening bars at the concert. I was subsequently told that he had been reluctantly impressed that I had ignored his advice and gone my own way. I never owned up that I deserved no credit for this at all.
What advice regarding the application process would you give to future DFCC candidates?
The video is very important. Sometimes it’s difficult to get suitable material together, but since the selection panel will only watch a few minutes at the most, it’s important to get those few minutes right. And don’t put a gloss on anything. Don’t say you studied with someone you only met once, or that you worked with so-and-so just for the sake of dropping a name. When I look at CVs nowadays, it sometimes seems the entire world has studied with Leonard Bernstein.
How has winning the DFCC helped you to advance your conducting career?
It certainly helped at the beginning because having something like that to your name opens doors that may otherwise take longer to open. I made mistakes with agents, though, and accepted the wrong offers, something I sometimes have cause to regret to this day. Agents circle conducting competitions, signing up people by the dozen on the basis that one of them might hit the jackpot for them. But they aren’t always in it for the long game. But the DFCC remains a proud part of my biography, and will always be so.
What has been your greatest achievement since winning the DFCC?
This is not something I could say. It’s in the nature of things that one’s “greatest achievements” will always be in the future.
What advice would you give to future DFCC candidates?
As I subsequently got to know Donatella a little, I came to understand very clearly her motivation for setting up the competition: what matters to her most of all is the music. It’s all about creating the right conditions for music. This is important to remember because it humanises what can be a thoroughly intimidating process, and ultimately it removes the danger that we’re merely participating in some kind of high-brow spectator sport.