Redefining the World of Classical Music Competitions

Bertie Baigent, Grand Prix winner of the inaugural International Conducting Competition Rotterdam

Friday night’s concert at De Doelen, Rotterdam was the culmination of two weeks of frenetic music-making here in the Netherlands, and the highlight of this inaugural International Conducting Competition, Rotterdam.

I felt a certain thrill walking into the Grote Zaal here at De Doelen for the first time after spending a good part of the previous week watching live streams of both rehearsals and concerts from this hall. There is a certain intimacy in such a large hall where the audience is so close to the stage.

This new conducting competition, the brainchild of Rob Hilberink (director of the Liszt Piano Competition) and Martijn Sanders (ex-director of the Concertgebouw), has sought to re-define the format and create a competition without losers and where everyone is happy. In this final’s week, we have been treated to a showcase of exceptional and talented individuals working with musicians of the highest calibre: Sinfonia Rotterdam, the incredibly versatile De Doelen Ensemble, the amazingly talented Orchestra of the 18th Century (playing on period instruments) and of course the fabulous Rotterdam Philharmonic. How lucky we all were.

The six finalists or designate winners selected in June 2021 and performing on Friday were: Bertie Baigent, Martijn Dendievel, Chloe Rooke, Joel Sandelson, Luis Toro Araya, and Carlos Agreda.

Six finalists

The presenter, Christiaan Kuyvenhoven bounded onto the stage with his endless boyish charm to introduce Bertie Baigent as the chosen candidate to perform Night Flight, the third movement of a work from a young Dutch composer, Joey Roukens. Bertie (aged 27) from London, UK has an exciting CV, working as Assistant Conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the Colorado Symphony as well as being Musical Director since 2017 of his own Waterperry Opera Festival in Oxfordshire, UK.

Bertie found the fun and humour in this dense and busy score which had deluded some of the other conductors in the afternoon rehearsals. He revelled in the undulating 7/8 rhythms, and the seductive syncopations of the endless scales. A fabulously fruity contra-bassoon section added to the darkness of the contrasting middle section; all the time, Cuban rhythms moved the music ever forward. Bertie’s black patent shoes positively shimmered in the reflective glory. This work has so much more appeal in the live concert hall than on an online stream. I couldn’t help but smile!

Chloe Rooke (26) from Oxford, UK but studying here in the Netherlands, started her symphonic proceedings with the first movement from Mahler 4, an immense challenge for any conductor. Taking the decision to conduct without a baton was a brave move to make in the finals, and as a result, some of the gestures were too big for the music and were a distraction to the overall performance. The famous trumpet solo however heralded a change in mood and the orchestra visibly sighed and smiled in relief. A connection had been made. The second violins had so much fun: Mahler writes beautifully for this instrument and their efforts really bolstered the first violins who spent much time running around in the stratosphere! Rooke found an inner stillness; the movement found a serenity; and the audience appreciated the beauty of Mahler’s writing in these capable hands.

Carlos Agreda (31) from Colombia treated us to the first movement of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. I fear nerves got the better of this performance as again, we witnessed oversized conducting gestures right from the outset. Nothing was held back for later, and again, it felt as if Agreda over-conducted the work, at times creating a gesture for each note. Excessive whole-body movement and walking around on the podium became a distraction for the orchestra, who in this case, struggled to stay in time. This was however quite an exciting reading. The build-up of tension towards the end was most effective and Agreda showed great clarity in the change of tempi. The violins, expertly lead by Marieke Blankestijn, created a wonderful stillness, and this, coupled with the equally wonderful calmness from the flute and cello undulations at the end, brought a gravitas to the performance.

Up next was the Belgian conductor, Martijn Dendievel (27), known to audiences here in the Netherlands for his work with Phion Orkest and the Philarmonie Zuid-Nederland. Indeed, I reviewed one of his concerts back in February where he teamed up with the amazingly talented former BBC New Generation Artist, the clarinettist, Annelein van Wauwe, for a dazzling series of concerts here in East Netherlands, and I made the prediction that we would see much more of this talented young conductor. In an interview with de Volkskrant earlier in the week, Dendievel described himself as something of a ‘bad boy’, and we did see glimmers of this side of his character in both the rehearsal and in his pre-performance video, but oh, did the Rotterdam Philharmonic respond to his every gesture and truly rise to the occasion in this performance of the highly emotional last two movements of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, written just three weeks before the composer’s death.

Martijn Dandievel

Dendievel exuded an air of confidence, (and very much looked the part in his new Woolwind tails, from a German start-up company in Bamberg, creating clothes exclusively for conductors). A very controlled crescendo where he really held the orchestra back, confirmed to all that his interpretation would reign supreme.

This concert was as much a showcase for the amazing talents in the Rotterdam Phil as it was for the conductors. We witnessed stunningly beautiful playing from the strings and bassoons: playing of such sadness that I sat with tears in my eyes. Beautiful chorale passages from the horns and trombones matched the equally impressive playing from the 2nd violins — a section I cannot praise enough. Maxim Vengerov, violinist extraordinaire and one of the six judges on tonight’s panel, was visibly enjoying the performance. Under Dendievel’s instruction, the brass opened up for the first time; the horns’ buzzing seared through the hall; the orchestra were enjoying themselves and they delivered. It was a joy.

Luis Toro Araya (27) from Chile opened the second half with a second reading of Mahler 4. He immediately found the many different colours so vital to any successful interpretation of this work. Changes in speed worked well and made perfect musical sense. A thread was spun. Silky and seductive sounds from the violins led us to a stillness; a calmness, in complete contrast to the previous madness. The horns had great fun with their turns as did the whole orchestra. Araya found the swirling rise and fall, and the searing clarinets and oboes were jubilant. The orchestra was unleashed. This was a polished and assured interpretation with a real sense of emotional depth, stillness, peace and calm. The whole auditorium was in the palm of his hands, hanging on every beat. It was no surprise that he was awarded the audience award and a cheque for €10,000.

Luis Toro Araya

And so, to Joel Sandelson (28), from the UK and his reading of Shostakovich 5 — a much faster reading than the orchestra were expecting and at times, especially in the quieter moments, the music just needed to breathe. The orchestra wanted to slow down, but Sandelson pushed forward. He sustained the tension well in the climax, but it was unclear whether his gestures were actually helping the orchestra, or if they were just playing it how they always did — the shadow of Gergiev runs deep in the veins of the Rotterdam Phil. An early trombone entry added to the uncertainty. Calm was restored with the exquisite horn and flute antiphonal passage. The audience relaxed.

Joel Sanderson

The concert concluded with a return to the podium for Bertie Baigent and a second reading of Tchaikovsky 6. It really does make a difference when conductors come on the stage looking the part, shiny shoes again in tow! Despite the slightly scrappy start, this was an exciting Scherzo which found details in the pizzicato strings, and a lightness full of expectation. The brass found a new energy in the wonderful bass lines from the double bass, trombones and tuba; and the antiphonal work between the trumpets and horns was the best I had heard them all night. The trombones revelled in the rise and fall of their descending scales.

Whilst being an excellent performance, I did not feel the sadness I had experienced earlier in the evening. This felt more a celebration of life than a foreshadowing of imminent death.

The proceedings drew to a close as the jurors adjourned to decide who would indeed walk away as Grand Prix winner and lift the trophy — a rock with a baton and a little monkey atop!

Who had given the best musical performance?

Who had the best conducting technique?

Who did the orchestra enjoy playing for the most?

Who engaged and touched the hearts and minds of the audience?

Who would be the best ambassador for this inaugural year of the International Conducting Competition, Rotterdam?

The foyer was abuzz with candidates and their families, numerous music students, interested audience members from all walks of life, sponsors and even the odd scout from interested orchestras making new and perhaps lasting connections, all casting their votes for the audience award and making predictions as to who would win.

What better showcase could a young conductor hope for as a stepping-stone to further career enhancement. This competition, so lavishly articulated by the amazing Rob Hilberink and his amazing team, has given these six young conductors the biggest boost to their career imaginable. I hope they are eternally grateful for such exposure across so many platforms — YouTube, NPO Radio 4, Medici TV, the Violin Channel, Takt1 and Amadeus TV as well as the Dutch podcast ‘De Maestro met de Brienaald’ from the presenter Christiaan Kuyvenhoven, which has amassed over 20,000 downloads.

The trophy awarded to the Grand Prix winner of the International Conducting Competition, Rotterdam

We returned to the auditorium for an interview with Martijn Sanders — the chair of this competition — a mere eight years in the making — to ask us to turn to the screens and await the results of the deliberations. And the winners were:

𝗚𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗣𝗿𝗶𝘅 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗕𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝗔𝗹𝗹𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗿: € 𝟭𝟱,𝟬𝟬𝟬

Bertie Baigent, United Kingdom

𝗣𝗿𝗼𝗺𝘀 𝗢𝗽𝗲𝗻 𝗔𝗶𝗿 𝗖𝗼𝗻𝗰𝗲𝗿𝘁: € 𝟳,𝟱𝟬𝟬

Martijn Dendievel, Belgium

𝗖𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗺𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗮𝗿𝘆 𝗠𝘂𝘀𝗶𝗰: € 𝟳,𝟱𝟬𝟬

Chloe Rooke, United Kingdom

𝗖𝗹𝗮𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗰𝗮𝗹: € 𝟳,𝟱𝟬𝟬

Bertie Baigent, United Kingdom

𝗢𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗮: € 𝟳,𝟱𝟬𝟬

Luis Toro Araya, Chile

𝗟𝗮𝗿𝗴𝗲 𝗦𝘆𝗺𝗽𝗵𝗼𝗻𝗶𝗰 𝗪𝗼𝗿𝗸𝘀: € 𝟳,𝟱𝟬𝟬

Bertie Baigent, United Kingdom

𝗞𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗷𝗲𝘀 𝗔𝘂𝗱𝗶𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗔𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗱: €𝟭𝟬,𝟬𝟬𝟬

Luis Toro Araya, Chile

Bertie Baigent was a very popular choice and a most deserving first Grand Prix winner of this fabulous competition. Such a lovely and approachable young man. His courteous, respectful and insightful manner in both the rehearsal and the concert hall will stand him in good stead. He will be a great ambassador for the profession.

I wish all the contestants well and look forward to seeing them again soon in the concert hall.

Listen to the concert on YouTube

Further reading on the ICCR website

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