Stuart Forster looks at the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany.
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Bamberg provides an international stage for the world’s leading young classical music conductors. The Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition (known as the Gustav Mahler Dirigentenwettbewerb in German) has a first prize of €30,000. The prize money, though, is insignificant compared to the prestige and career boost available to talented young conductors.
The first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition was held in 2004. The competition’s usual three-year cycle was disrupted after 2016. It was most recently held in 2020 when British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear was the recipient of the first prize.
Gustav Mahler and Bamberg
Ahead of the 2013 competition, I spoke with Wolfgang Fink, Managing Director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, to understand more about the competition. He explained that there’s no direct personal link between Gustav Mahler, the Austrian composer who lived from 1860 to 1911, and the attractive city in Franconia.
“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 impresario. He worked with him in Los Angeles. When he took over here, in 2002, he and Ernest together thought ‘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. Gustavo, within a very few years, established a name as one of the leading – perhaps the leading – young conductors,” which implies that the futures prize winners look bright if they continue to work hard and make smart 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
Ahead of the 2013 contest, each participant had to prepare two modern pieces, Act by Rolf Wallin and a composition by György Ligeti. They also needed to conduct 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.
Selecting composers for the competition
“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 to the last 20, is sometimes a pretty tough decision,” says Fink with feeling in his voice.
Based on the high quality of finalists, the jury is adept at drawing up a shortlist of participants in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition.
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.
Bamberg Concert Hall
The map of Bamberg, below, depicts the location of the Bamberg Concert Hall (Kozerthalle Bamberg) at Mussstrasse 1:
Hotels in Bamberg
Looking for a place to stay in Bamberg? Search for hotels in Bamberg’s city centre via Booking.com:
Travel to Bamberg
Bamberg is a 230-kilometre drive along the A9 from Munich, the location of Munich Airport. Germany’s Inter-City Express (ICE) trains present a relaxing way of travelling between the two cities in under two hours.
Nuremberg Airport is approximately 60 kilometres south of Bamberg along the A73.
From Frankfurt Airport, Bamberg is a 216-kilometre drive along the A3 and A70.
Books about Germany and Mahler
Planning a trip to Bamberg or have an interest in learning more about Mahler? You may find the following books interesting:
Lonely Planet’s Best of Germany:
Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht:
The Cambridge Companion to Mahler edited by Jeremy Barham:
Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer:
See the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra’s official website for its concert programme.
Learn more about things to do in Bamberg on the Bamberg tourism information 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 visiting the Schlenkerla tavern and trying its smoked beer.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, has lived in Germany and speaks fluent German. His work has been published by National Geographic Traveller, Rough Guides, Love Exploring and many more publications.
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A version of this post was first published on Go Eat Do on 16 July 2013.