Siemens Hallé International Competition for Conductors; LSO/Hannigan; Turandot – review

The cheers in Manchester on Tuesday night weren’t just for football (City’s 7-0 win against Leipzig). Another competition took place the same evening with more than 200 entries from around the world narrowed down to a shortlist of eight, three finalists and one well-deserved winner. The purpose of Siemens Hallé international competition for conductors is to appoint the next deputy conductor of the Hallé orchestra. (Delete your image of that work as portrayed in the film Tar, which I have sworn never to mention again but must, for the sake of accuracy). the competition itself is new. Delyana Lazarova was the inaugural winner in 2020 and now concludes her successful two-year spell in Manchester.

A lot is at stake for everyone. From the buzz of last week’s conversation it was clear that many in the audience had followed previous rounds (judged by a seven-person international judging panel) and had views and favourites. In addition to working alongside Mark Elder, now nearing the end of his long term as music director of the Hallé, the assistant must lead his youth orchestra and engage in the many awareness projects, in nursing homes, schools, hospitals. Being able to conduct, like each of the finalists, that of Mozart Marriage of Figaro the overture is not enough.

Each then performed substantial orchestral work: Pablo Urbina, 34, from Spain, had arguably the most difficult task with Symphony No. 3 by Sibelius. Agata Zając, 27, Polish, showed talent and command in Stravinsky Firebird suite, tackling its technical challenges and meeting the challenge of the big job closure.

The winner was the youngest of the shortlist: 24-year-old American Euan Shields, who is still studying at the Juilliard School in New York. His Mozart had strength and risk, even if it led to a muddled ensemble, but he handled Elgar’s Variations of the riddle with authority, charm and a natural sense of rhythm and flow. As Elder noted when announcing the results, the question he is always asked is: “What does a conductor actually do? Do?” The answer is: a lot that is not seen from behind. The communication and musical intelligence to express phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, articulation, requires an immediate relationship with the performers. The opinions of the Hallé musicians, as well as those of the youth orchestra that worked with the finalists in a previous heat, were incorporated into the final result. Good luck to Shields, but also watch out for the runners-up, all winning their way.

Canadian soprano Barbara AnniganThe path to conducting lay through an intrepid singing career. Many composers have created works for his high register virtuosity. Last weekend, citing health reasons, she decided not to attempt either endeavor as part of her residency with the London Symphony Orchestra. He conducted, but entrusted the solo of the last movement of the Symphony n. 4 by Mahler to Aphrodite Patoulidou. The versatile Greek soprano, also once a lead singer in a heavy metal band, was part of Hannigan’s important Equilibrium Young Artists initiative.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO and soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou in Mahler’s Fourth at the Barbican. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Watcher

Hannigan’s gestures have a sculptural fluidity. She uses her hands as if she were holding sound in her fingers, now broad, now feathery, now rich and compressed. This caused some smudging in Messiaen’s lavishness The Ascension. In the symphony, however, his approach has been analytical and detailed. Mahler leaves nothing – and everything – to chance, sketching the score with multiple gradations of instruction. Within a few pages he specifies: Gradually, don’t rush, calmly, again calmly, hold back. How to differentiate? Hannigan does exactly as the composer asks. Not all conductors do this, no doubt fearing the whole performance will collapse. At times, Sunday’s account was dangerously ponderous, but also inspiring. Listen to it on Radio 3 on March 24th. Hannigan, it was announced last week, will conduct the opening concerts of the new season of the LSO: an endorsement indeed.

At the Royal Opera House, another conductor, Antonio Pappano, who first learned his skills as a pianist by working with singers, mined gold from the warehouse dust. Turandot, in the Andrei Serban production, with art by Sally Jacobs, was first seen in 1984 and has since returned to Covent Garden at least 15 times. Pappano, one of today’s best Puccini conductors, spoke of his ambivalence towards this unfinished opera. This was his debut conducting it live in the theater (he also just recorded it with a different cast).

This reservation is understandable and shared by many of us. Based on the Persian legend reworked in the 18th century, Turandot it lacks humanity, if not in the figure of the slave Liù (sung with irresistible grace by Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, in the first of the two casts). The hero, Calaf, is in love with the ruthless princess of the title, an invention he barely knows. Given her indifference to the fate of her frail old father (superbly sung by Vitalij Kowaljow), one could say the lovers deserve each other. Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf, elegant, powerful and urgent in Niente dorma, was well matched by Anna Pirozzi, imperious in the role of the Ice Maiden. In Pappano’s hands, ROH orchestra ablaze, the score glittered and crackled.

The episode of Ping, Pang and Pong in Act 2 can seem endless. Here it took on the air of a thriller. The swish of a Chinese gong, muffled brass, insistent pizzicato cellos whispered menacingly as the trio of bad officials (excellent work by Hansung Yoo, Michael Gibson and Aled Hall) sang about riddles and severed heads, throwing skulls all the while. Join the wild excess and spectacle at the cinema screenings – live on 22nd March and reruns on 26th March. This TurandotThe long and spectacular reign of can not last forever.

Star ratings (out of five)
Siemens Hallé international competition for conductors

  • Turandot is at the Royal Opera House in London, until 13 April

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