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The future stars of conducting

BY Rosie Pentreath

27th Mar 2023 Music

The future stars of conducting

Rosie Pentreath talks with the founder of the iconic conducting competition that bears her name, Donatella Flick, as the winner of the competition’s 17th instalment is announced

Donatella Flick spotted a cliff face when she looked at the road in front of young conductors in 1990.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between conservatoire training and professional life, as I’d noticed that this was the point where many talented conductors were faltering or abandoning careers in conducting entirely,” Flick tells Reader’s Digest, reflecting on founding the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition 33 years ago.

"It’s so important to nurture young talent and give them the opportunities to succeed"

Flick wanted to find young conductors at the beginning of their careers and make sure they had tools to enable them not to give up.

“It’s so important to nurture young talent and give them the opportunities to succeed,” she tells us.

Opportunity through Donatella Flick Conducting Competition

Donatella Flick Donatella Flick. Photo by Clive Totman

That’s why, she emphasises, the prize goes beyond the cash award—which is a healthy £15,000—and offers the winner the opportunity to assist the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) for a year. “They can work with some of the world’s finest conductors and lay foundations for a successful conducting career.”

“I think Donatella Flick, having the vision to unite the conducting competition with the London Symphony Orchestra has created a situation where the foundations of this competition are very, very strong,” Chief Conductor Designate of the LSO, Antonio Pappano, has said.

Donatella Flick’s story

Flick was born Princess Donatella Missikoff. She is the daughter of Prince George Missikoff of Ossetia—which is a region bordered by Georgia and swallowed up in part by the Russian Empire in the 18th century—and is the godmother of Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece.

A white Russian émigré, since her family fled Russian territory during the Russian revolution of 1917, Flick has successfully built a career and reputation as an acclaimed arts philanthropist. She now organises charitable foundations and projects all over the world.

Scope of Conducting Competition

Nicolo Foron conducts LSO in the final of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition
Nicolò Foron conducts LSO in the final of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (DFCC). Credit: Mark Allan

With the Conducting Competition, she was motivated by finding more talent in unexpected places—before diversity and inclusion spread through different industries as new “buzzwords”, she says.

“One way to do this was to broaden the scope for applications, so we opened up entries to conductors from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland in 2018,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “Since then, I’ve been very pleased to see conductors from those countries reach the list of competitors.”

"We've made it more accessible worldwide by live-streaming the final on medici.tv, so everyone can see these wonderful young conductors in action"

Other changes in the competition have broadened its scope in recent years.

“We lowered the maximum age for applicants from 35 to 30 in 2018 to target conductors at the beginning of their careers,” Flick says. “We’ve also made it more accessible to audiences worldwide by live-streaming the final on medici.tv, so everyone has the opportunity to see these wonderful young conductors in action.”

Increasing diversity?

And what about conducting itself? Shrouded in stories of maestros gone mad, and male egos leaving little in the way of opportunities for women—not to mentioned ethnically diverse people—it’s no secret it’s on the conservative edge of the classical music industry, let alone the arts as a whole.

Flick is seeing progress, though: “One of the major changes that I’ve been very happy to see is that more women are applying to the Competition now than when we started in 1990, and I hope this continues in future competitions.”

Things may be improving, but it’s stark that only four of the 20 conductors—that’s 20 per cent—who qualified for the 2023 competition are women. Why is a gender imbalance like this persisting?

“I think we have a new generation of female conductors emerging, and I would deeply encourage them to apply to the Competition if they’re at the start of their careers,” Flick says, still hopeful.

What makes a great conductor?

Donatella Flick and Duke of Kent announce Nicolo Foron as winnerDonatella Flick and HRH Duke of Kent announce Nicolò Foron as the 2023 Conducting Competition winner. Photo credit: Mark Allan

So what makes a truly great conductor? “The ability to communicate—to first the orchestra and then the public,” Flick has said.

Antonio Pappano believes a great conductor is “someone who’s devoted his or her life to music”.

“It’s to communicate, perhaps, some of the strongest and most heart-rending emotions, which make for a lot of the great symphonic repertoire. But it’s a life, I tell you. It’s a life.”

"What makes a great conductor is the ability to communicate—to first the orchestra and then the public"

And 25-year old Italian-German conductor, Nicolò Foron, has just taken his next step in that life. After being announced the winner of the 2023 Donatella Flick Competition, he says he’s “ecstatic”.

Foron, who will be assistant conductor with the LSO for at least a year, was announced winner of the 2023 competition on March 23, after conducting music by Wagner, Grieg and Berlioz in the competition’s anticipated final.

A big congratulations to Nicolò.

The Donatella Flick Conducting Competition is held every two years. Keep an eye on donatellaflickcompetition.com to stay up to date with when entries open for the 2025 competition

Banner photo: Donatella Flick Competition 2021. Copyright Matt Crossick

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