Twenty-six year German conductor Niklas Hoffmann won the 2016 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition last night with a captivating combination of curiosity, boyish enthusiasm and self-assured musicality. He pockets £15,000 and two years as the LSO’s associate conductor.
The final, recorded by Classic FM for broadcast on Thursday 24 November, concluded a gruelling three-day competition in which twenty contenders (shortlisted from over 200 applicants) conducted the Guildhall School of Music Symphony Orchestra in performances watched by the competition jury.
The three finalists were informed of the works they would be conducting on Tuesday evening. Each finalist conducted Verdi’s Force of Destiny, a selection of variations from Elgar’s Enigma, and a movement from Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.
Early on there were two strong contenders. UK conductor Kerem Hasan occupied the podium with poise, conjuring up a dynamic Force of Destiny with a clear reliable baton technique and a vast expressive range. His was undoubtedly the standout performance; Romanian conductor Vlad Vizireanu adopted a more tentative approach; Hoffman’s interpretation, although not always convincing, did hint at something special.
Hasan struggled early to find his groove with the opening variations from Elgar’s Enigma. It’s a deceptively demanding work affording musicians little time to bed-in before having to move on to each subsequent variation. Vizireanu again took a careful approach to the Elgar, his most successful variation being the last. On the whole however, Vizireanu seemed to take the nobilemente far too slow, making for a long and drawn out Elgar that doesn’t necessarily reward the listener. Niklas Hoffmann shone once again in the Elgar, pausing before his final two variations (Allegretto and Nimrod) and creating a sense of jeopardy about proceedings. The transition into Nimrod lingered a little, but the final effect was incredibly touching.
Where all three conductors flourished was in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, perhaps because the greater musical development in each of the movements they took on. Hoffman showed himself as demonstrative, tackling lyrical sections with grace, and expansive sequences with a captivating curiosity.
Despite Vizireanu’s mechanical approach to the second movement he still succeeded in creating a polished performance. Hasan concluded the work with a powerful interpretation, occupying the music with the self-assurance we’d witnessed during the Verdi.
The jury members were Lennox Mackenzie, Dame Felicity Lott, Sir Antonio Pappano, Carlo Rizzi, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov, and LSO principal bassoonist Rachel Gough.