Finding the next superstar conductor: A unique competition at the Salzburg Festival

Finding the next superstar conductor: A unique competition at the Salzburg Festival

They are among the most exciting young talents of their generation and they have the chance of a lifetime. A handful of young conductors are invited to the Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors Award. In this episode of Musica, we find out what inspires them, what their ambitions are and how they prepare for this unique competition.

The young Austrian conductor Tobias Wögerer originally started playing the cello but discovered his passion for conducting during his time in high school. Back then he started to lead the school choir and orchestra.

«Conducting is my dream job because it is a vocation on the one hand and a profession on the other,» Tobias told Musica. «It’s something that stays with you all your life. You are never finished. You’re always learning, always learning more.»

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“I just tried to create opportunities for myself in the beginning, where I could try things out […] You have to find a few crazy people at the beginning who say ‘okay, I’ll let you try it out’ and then you can just jump in at the deep end. Conducting is something you learn, it’s just like an instrument. You need the instrument to develop further. In conducting, the instrument is actually the orchestra.” 

Tobias Wögerer, Candidate, Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors AwardEuronews

Salzburg is a magnet for the world’s greatest performers, and the Salzburg Festival hosts a unique competition: the prestigious Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors Award. Tobias has been invited with seven other candidates to the semi-finals.

«I dreamt of participating here for a very long time,» said candidate Anna Handler. «Since I received the invitation, I’ve tried everything to prepare in the best possible way.»

Anna Handler, candidate, Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors AwardEuronews

«If the Salzburg Festival organises it then what could be better? I always wanted to participate but have always felt like I’m probably still not ready for it,» revealed fellow candidate Hankyeol Yoon.

Tobias, Anna and Hankyeol have been chosen from over 300 young talents from around the world. They are between 21 and 35 years old, and winning this award means opening the doors to the greatest orchestras. Some conductors even have rockstar status.

Hankyeol Yoon, Candidate, Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors AwardEuronews

They are a different species. There is a special magic about them. But what does a conductor actually do? How does he get so many musicians to follow his lead?

«I think the most important thing a conductor does, he breathes,» said Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors Award candidate Vitali Alekseenok. «To make it even clearer, sometimes we not only have our hand but also our baton, which catches the eye of the musicians and sometimes even of the audience.»

«The left hand can then better show how it will be or what will happen next. A conductor communicates all that with his body language, with his heart, with his brain and with his ear.» 

Vitali Alekseenok, Candidate, Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors AwardEuronews

Back to the contest, their talent is put to the test in the presence of the jury. They need to dive right in – without seeing the musicians beforehand. From the classics of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to Schoenberg’s modern music.

«I’m still quite full of adrenaline. Very, very warm, but happy,» said candidate Harry Ogg. «You put in so much work and thought and nerves and everything. It’s sort of like trying to jump off the Eiffel Tower and land on an exact spot on the floor somewhere.»

«By the time I get to the podium there is nothing else,» explained candidate Irene Delgado-Jiménez. «I try to control my breathing and put myself in position. If I think about what the jury is thinking, I stop being me and I lose you the ideas that I have.»

There is a lot at stake and tensions are high. They only have a few minutes to present their vision and convince the jury.

«You always have this time pressure even if you have a three-hour rehearsal,» said Tobias Wögerer. «It’s very much a matter of feeling, spontaneous feeling. Of course, you prepare as well as possible, with all kinds of ideas about how to formulate something, how to talk to the orchestra. But in the end, you can only decide that spontaneously on the spot at that moment.»

For the musicians, it’s also an interesting challenge to work with the young talents.

«We know immediately if a conductor is talented by how clear they are, how much they can show with simply that beat,» said Sasha Calin, an oboist with the Mozarteum Orchestra. «The artistic side is much more difficult to describe and to judge and it’s also very subjective. So can they show us with their beat how to play a phrase what emotion they want us to use?»

“Of course, very important is also in the rehearsal phase how they take us through the piece,» Sasha added.

Herbert von Karajan: ‘Always ahead of the times’

The icon whose name graces the award is one of the most influential conductors of the 20th century. After Mozart, Herbert von Karajan is Salzburg’s most important son.

«Herbert von Karajan was a visionary,» said Manfred Honeck, chairman of the jury. «He was called the ‘chief musical director of Europe’, conducting the most distinguished orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and he was also an essential figure for the Salzburg Festival.

Manfred Honeck, Chairman of the JuryEuronews

«He knew the scores by heart, he always conducted without a score. He knew the sound culture very well. The other thing is that he was always ahead of the times.»

«The importance of Karajan for the Festival cannot be overestimated. He was the magnet,» said Markus Hinterhäuser, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. “I think the Young Conductors Award would have been very much in his spirit. Karajan was smart enough and generous enough to know that you have to encourage future generations.»

The moment of truth has arrived as the jury has reached its decision.

«Eight candidates were gathered here. But three candidates were selected. Their names are Vitali Alekseenok, Tobias Wögerer, Hankyeol Yoon,» Manfred Honeck revealed.

Three months of intensive preparation now lie ahead for Tobias and the others.

«I just try to do my best. But it’s incredible to be in the top three,» Tobias Wögerer said.

Make sure to catch the next episode of Musica, as Vitali, Tobias and Hankyeol battle it out for the Herbert von Karajan Young Conductors Award.


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