David Afkham

The young German conductor, assistant of the London Symphony Orchestra, reflects on time with the world's top orchestras

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Back in 2008 you won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition – how did it feel to win?

It was the first big international conducting competition I applied for, so I knew that it would be a great experience. The first thing was to get invited, then there were three rounds. One focused on symphonic repertoire, another concertos. The final one was with the LSO. 

Are competitions important for musicians today?

Everybody has to decide for themselves. Nowadays you have to fight to live from your art. Just one of the possibilities of getting there is to enter competitions. At music conservatoire, you don't know how you compare to your international colleagues. So an international competition is important for this, but it's not a promise for being successful.There are many wonderful musicians who never do a competition.

Is it difficult for young conductors to establish a career now?

It’s difficult to say. In the German tradition, young conductors don’t start immediately as conductors. First you go to the opera house and spend years playing all the operas on the piano. Then maybe you're asked to conduct a little operetta, then if you can conduct you become a conductor. There's also the route of being an assistant and having a mentor. And in the last 50 to 70 years competitions have maybe made it easier. But in a way it's also more difficult as now everyone has the chance to compete! 

Bernard Haitink is your mentor – what have you learnt from him?

This is a big question. I met him during a conducting masterclass in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was an eye-opener. I was a student then and my horizon was focused, or limited, by the conservatoire. Being in contact with such a personality as Haitink, who has so much experience and knows so much about music, makes you feel how much bigger the horizon is. Then of course there's all his experience with musicians, repertoire, technique and how to conduct with your mind rather than your hands. He has the enormous will and concentration to lead an orchestra from inside not from outside. 

What makes a good conductor?

A conductor should know his technique – how to communicate with people without words. This is so personal. If you think of Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Bernard Haitink or Valery Gergiev, they each have their own language. But they are all masters of their language. You should know what your message with the music is, the interpretation. Normally conductors should do what's written in the score, but of course there are always little question marks. Then there are the mysterious things that happen in performance that you can't explain but come through the souls of the musicians and conductors. 

You've worked with several of the world's top orchestras, including the LSO…

Working with the LSO was and still is great. You feel very welcome with this orchestra – they are wonderful musicians and there's a great atmosphere. Through Haitink I worked a lot with the Royal Concertgebouw, Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. Each orchestra has its own character or mentality, and it's very interesting to compare them. 

Could you give us a flavour of their characters?

For instance the Concertgebouw has a beautiful, clear sound, but it's also round and elegant. The LSO is very clear – you hear everything, every detail. It’s professional, strong and has a lot of energy inside. The Chicago Symphony's sound is darker, more round. Except the brass – under Georg Solti it became famous for its bright, brass sound. Although when Daniel Barenboim and Haitink were principal conductors, they changed the sound. It became darker, more European somehow. If you have a chance as a young conductor to be in contact with these sound characters and qualities, it's a wonderful gift.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

The final of the 2010 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition takes place on 4 November at London's Barbican Hall

Related links:
Kirill Karabits on conducting Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony
David Atherton on conducting Holst's Choral Symphony

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