The Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg

Stuart Forster takes a look at the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany.

Every three years a number of the world’s leading young classical music conductors travel to the German city of Bamberg. They visit to participate in the International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition.

Lahav Shani, from Israel, was named as the winner of the first prize. Tung-Chieh Chuang, from Taiwan, and David Danzmayr, from Austria, were named runners-up, each walking away with prizes of €10,000, half of the sum taken home by Shani. The prize money, though, is insignificant compared to the prestige won by these talented young conductors.

Gustav Mahler and Bamberg

I spoke with Wolfgang Fink, the managing director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, to understand more about the competition. He explained that there’s no direct personal link between Mahler, who lived from 1860 to 1911, and this attractive Franconian city.

“It’s rather that our chief conductor, Jonathan Nott, embarked on a big Mahler endeavour some ten years ago. We performed a lot of Mahler, all of his symphonies and, meanwhile, recorded all the symphonies. But the main reason why the competition is named after Mahler is because Mahler, in our view, in addition to being a great and important composer, is a role model as a conductor,” says Fink.

“We thought in some ways he established a new approach of how to lead an orchestra, with very strict rehearsal schedules, with a clear idea of repertoire. If you look through Mahler’s career as a conductor, he developed that over many years.  So we thought this is a very important symbol and an honour to Mahler to give this particular conducting competition a distinct and challenging name,” he adds.

Origins of the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition

“My predecessor was a student of Ernest Fleischmann, the famous music manager and empressario, he worked with him in Los Angeles, and when he took over here in 2002 he and Ernest together though what can we do to create a new project that is unique to Bamberg. And so the idea of a conducting competition came to light,” says Fink of the competition’s origins.

“Our first winner was Gustavo Dudamel which immediately gave this competition a very high profile, because Gustavo, within a very few years, established a name as one of the leading – perhaps the leading – young conductors,” which implies that the futures of this year’s prize winners look bright, so long as they continue to work hard and make the right career decisions.

“We have agents, journalists, presenters, orchestra managers who come to Bamberg to see if, together, we discover the new Leonard Bernstein,” says Fink lightheartedly yet with an undertone of earnestness.

Modern compositions and Mahler’s works

Each participant had to prepare two modern pieces, Act by Rolf Wallin and a composition by György Ligeti, three pieces from Alban Berg’s Lyrical Suite, plus Joseph Haydn’s 92nd symphony and a number of Mahler’s works.

“We certainly do not look for somebody who knows how to beat time and keep things together. This is, of course, basic. I think we’re looking for somebody who’s really an interesting music maker and has ideas about the pieces, not just administrating the pieces; somebody who has an idea of the piece that grasps both the musicians’ and the listeners’ fantasy,” says Fink of the characteristics sought in winners.

Anyone up to the age of 35 can participate in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition by sending in a video of themselves at work and their CV.

The process of selection

“Jonathan Nott, John Carewe and myself sat together for four days and watched 400 videos. It’s fairly easy to sort out 300 right away because you see these people want to be a conductor but their skills and their capacities are limited,” explains Fink of the selection process.

“80 or 85 videos are kept back for a second view…it takes four days, ten hours a day, discussing the pros and cons of these applications. The most difficult part is always the last 20 to 25. We want to give the participants as much time as possible with the orchestra, so in the first round each participant has 40 minutes, which we think is pretty unique, in many competitions the first round is with the piano but they have 40 minutes of quality time with an orchestra. What we aim for is to narrow it down to 12, which, at the end, when it comes the last 20, is sometimes a pretty rough decision,” says Fink with feeling in his voice.

Clearly though, based on the high quality of this year’s finalists, Fink and his colleagues made their choices well.

The competition generates significant international interest. Despite Bamberg being a city of only 70,000 inhabitants it’s the home to one of Germany’s major orchestras, with ten per cent of the population subscribing to Bamberg Symphony Orchestra tickets.

Further information

See the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra official website for its concert programme.

Learn more about the city on the Bamberg website.

Thanks for reading this post on the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. If you’re planning on visiting the Franconian city you may enjoy stopping by the Schlenkerla tavern and trying its smoked beer.

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