Today I went to see the finals of the Wind Band Conductors Competition in Järvenpää, which consisted of a dress rehearsal of about 30 minutes per competitor in the afternoon, plus the finalists' concert in the evening at Järvenpää-talo with the Guards Band. Yesterday ten participants had conducted the Helsinki Police Band in works of Holst (but that occasion was not open to the public) and the candidates had been whittled down to the final three.
I must say that after seeing both the rehearsals and the concert today I had a pretty clear idea of my order of preference, but the final verdict of the jury surprised me nevertheless. They decided to give the prizes as follows:
First Prize: Eero Lehtimäki, Finland
Second Prize: Tanja Räsänen, Finland
Third Prize: Christy Muncey, USA
Special prize: Igor Goncharov, Russia (he did not conduct today)
This was the unanimous decision of the jury, but it is a bit hard for me to understand how they ended up with it. So I will try to explain my impressions of the candidates I saw.
To begin with, I was surprised that some candidates that I thought were technically superior to the finalists were voted out in the previous round. But as I said, the second round was not open to the public so I should not debate it. It would anyway have been more interesting to see for example five candidates in the finals instead of just three.
All three had been given different works (by lots I was told) which made it more difficult to make comparisons between them. But what is clear in a rehearsal situation is their time management skill, how they speak to the orchestra and what kind of things they say, and how varied their conducting technique is. And of course you can get an idea of their musicality too even though the pieces are different.
Christy Muncey, who got the Three Dances for Concert Band by Erik Norby as her finals piece, started by rehearsing the work in little bits and saved time in the end for a run through. Technically she was clear but there was not much variety in the gesture. She talked to the orchestra in a very positive and encouraging manner (after every improvement she assured they sounded "lovely"), but almost all of her suggestions were merely technical (about articulation, balance and so on). I am not saying technical instruction is not needed, but I prefer using a kind of vocabulary that could stir the imagination of the players, and I did not hear that today from any of the candidates.
Eero Lehtimäki, who is better known as Johan Smörgårds in his capacity of the "artistic misleader" of the RWBK humor band, got Olav Anton Thommessen's "Stabsarabesque" as his piece. This piece reminded me of Mosolov's "Iron Foundry", it is massive and machine-like and has several longish development sections where you should really be able to time the peaks right. I must say that I was disappointed with Lehtimäki's rehearsal. He started by stopping the orchestra five times on its tracks, and we never heard a longer section of the work. Also the way he communicated with the orchestra made it seem like he does not really believe in the piece. His whole 30 minutes was stopping and starting, and he mostly kept asking the orchestra to play louder and "exaggerate everything". The overall impression was that he did not have a plan but was finding things to rehearse ad hoc.
The last candidate to rehearse the Guards Band was Tanja Räsänen, and she made the most professional impression of the lot by calmly conducting the whole work through before starting to work on the details. Her piece was the easiest of the three though - Einar Englund's "White Reindeer" which basically falls in the category of movie soundtrack music. Tanja was technically clear but not enough varied, with a lot of confidence though - but again in instructing the band she resorted to technical details only just like the others. She finished early which in professional circles is always a plus - provided you rehearsed and said everything you needed to.
The jury has come out of its lair
In the concert there were no surprises - everyone conducted about the same as they did in the dress rehearsal - except that we finally could hear the Thommesen piece from beginning to end. My order of preference was to give Tanja Räsänen the highest marks, put Christy Muncey second and leave Eero Lehtimäki third. For some reason the jury was most fond of Eero's work though. As some of the jury members were not present at the dress rehearsal I cannot but think that the result could have been different if they would have seen the drastic differences in the time management skills of the finalists. Being a smart and organized person and managing the rehearsal in a professional manner is of utmost importance if you are planning to make a career out of conducting professional orchestras.
On the other hand maybe the result simply reflects the most current trends in conducting, and the things I was taught ten years ago are no longer valid. What made me happy though was that my favorite from the first round, Igor Goncharov, was awarded the special prize! So there still might be a place for a more traditional approach to conducting - just a bit out of the limelight...