A competition for conductors to avoid

A competition for conductors to avoid


norman lebrecht

September 13, 2011

I’ve received a report from a disappointed contestant at the Bucharest Conducting Competition – not the usual loser’s whinge, but a detailed account of how bright, young talent is all too often abused at these closeted, corruptible events. The shining example of this year’s transparent Tchaikovsky Competition restored credibility to the sector, but there are still a lot of shabby events like the one below. Young conductors, beware.

The author, by the way, is a gifted and enterprising young maestro. I would welcome any comments the organising festival has to make in response.

The mastercourse and competition took place in Bucharest. The website is www.bucharestfestival.com.  It was organized by a lady called Raluca Chifane and the course was given by Wolfgang Doerner, who was also the president of the competition’s jury. 

Judging from the website, both the master course and competition looked ok. A master course of one week with a chamber orchestra and with the radio orchestra.

It claimed to have the support of the Romanian president and the teacher seemed ok (though I couldn’t find anything of him on youtube). Prior to the course I received a schedule that indicated conducting lessons almost daily. Arriving there I realized that for one week we were about 60 (!!) conductors for both the master course and competition. On the first day we were told that each one of us would get 30 minutes with the chamber orchestra and 30 minutes with the radio orchestra. This for €850 !!


Plus we had to pay our own travel costs and lodging. So, I went to Bucharest for 9 days to conduct a total of 60 minutes. When the lessons started, I came to the conclusion that the teacher was not particularly capable. Perhaps others may disagree but all the opinions from fellow colleagues that I could get were the same: “The teacher does not say much, when he says something it is not very clear neither very useful, but most of the time he simply does not say anything”. There was even one conductor who told him “maestro, I want to know your opinion” but the maestro did not give an opinion! Frustrated, the student decided better to leave the podium though his time was not over!

After a few rounds of the competition I discovered that in the third round there were only a couple of conductors who were not students of the Jury’s president!! And the Jury’s president was of course, the same maestro of the master class. Having drinks with fellow conductors more details came out. Everybody was allowed to enter the master class (upon €850 payment of course) but only 36 conductors were supposed to be allowed into the competition (upon a €150 fee). At the end, there were all 60 conductors allowed in the competition, why??: Turns out that some of our colleagues who wanted to join exclusively the competition (at €150) were told by the Director of the festival: “Your chances of getting allowed into the competition are much bigger if you also join (and pay) for the master course”… Unbelievable.

By then it was Wednesday. I was then informed that my 30 minutes with the radio orchestra would be until next Monday… 4 long days in Bucharest, 35 degrees celsius. Trying to make the best of it, I prepare for my 30 minutes and I show up then, only to find an overworked and exhausted orchestra that has been playing 7 full days with 59 different conductors. Of course, at that point not even Gergiev’s conducting would have made them react. 

There I am, ready to start conducting Brahms first Hungarian dance. After a few bars communication was not really happening so I decide to stop and say the following: “You know this music very well and I only have 30 minutes so let’s try to make music, no talking. But first I would like to have a couple of bars of accompaniment, no melody so we can get the rhythm right” Immediately the maestro jumped to me to say “ You have to understand the psychology of the orchestra! Right now they are very tired and working out a separate section is not a good idea” (!!!???) I thought: “So I pay €850 for 60 minutes of something you could not call a lesson, and on top of that, I am not allowed to work out things because the orchestra is very tired!? So I actually paid €850 to play stupid standing on a podium!!” 

The cherry on the cake… The first prize of the competition was supposed to be to conduct the final concert of the festival. The second prize €1500 and the third €1000. It was a bit confusing to learn later that the final concert was going to be the finals of the competition, with all four finalists. I guessed the first price would then be a later engagement… I asked around in the radio house to find out that there was no such engagement, they were not planning to invite any of the finalists… Mhhh???
What happened in the finals?? There was no first prize awarded. Instead of giving one second prize and one third price they decided to split the second prize in three finalists. These poor guys who endured a rather humiliating and dishonest situation, ended up “winning” €500 each. Smart solution that saves the “organization” the €1000 that they would have to give as a third prize. So, as you can imagine, it was the conducting master course from hell.

I was extremely angry and I think other young conductors should be warned. It is terrible to abuse young people for which €1000 plus travel and lodging costs represent a big financial effort. I really cannot understand how can someone be so immoral to take advantage of a young musician’s enthusiasm and will to learn. It made me really sad. Talking to many of my fellow colleagues (some of them coming from USA, Japan, Korea) I realized I was not by far the only one sad.


  • C.J. Sperling says:

    Apart from the direct vicitms of this sham, I’m thinking of Romanian friends of mine who are working hard and honestly. They always face the “Corruptistan” image of Romania widely held abroad. And now again there’s a story to feed those prejudices.

    I’m deeply ashamed that this rip-off has obviously been planned in Germany but is attributed to their country.

    The “festival”‘s imprint names an “European College of Music” (ECM), Raluca Chifane-Wagenhäuser, Aixheim / Germany. Ms. Chifane, mentioned in the report, seems to be married to Wolfgang Wagenhäuser, who gave the piano master class of that “festival”. ECM’s domicile coincides with the home of the two. Mr. Wagenhäuser has tenure as well-paid piano professor (and head of department) at Trossingen music university, in vicinity of Aixheim.

    Some twenty years ago Prof. Wagenhäuser held a reputation for being interested in good teaching and doing both artistic and scientific research. He had a good standing amongst colleagues and pupils.

    Seemingly much has changed since.

    • Rania says:

      Very late comment- funny to find this article now. I was a participant at the piano masterclass section of this festival. Professor Wagenhäuser is everything you describe; very professional, honest, and committed to his teaching, someone I would love to get to study with again. Ms Chifane-Wagenhäuser was great at replying to my emails and giving me a clear picture of how things were. The piano masterclass itself was affordable- we got more lessons than we were promised (one every day for a week instead of just four lessons), and everyone got to perform in the final concert, not just “the best students”, as the website stated. For me it was a great experience to sit through some sessions of the conducting masterclass and the finals of the competition and to meet many wonderful conductors from over the world. Very inspiring people. Staying in the dorm was optional, and those who chose to lodge somewhere nicer regretted it eventually, because it was really fun living together and having breakfast with everyone in the morning. I did sense and hear a lot of frustration from the conductors about the way things went with their masterclass and competition, though, and I remember the surprising decisions made with the prizes awarded. But I have no direct experience to comment on it. I would think it can’t have been a waste, though, because these events are eventually about the connections you make and the fellow musicians you meet. As a pianist I’m disappointed that the piano masterclass has been discontinued.

  • Scammed says:

    I was a participant only at the the competition and had I known this absurdity of increased chances progressing based on the registration of master class too – I would have saved myself weeks of lodging and left.

    We tried to find a criteria that the judges based their selections on, but we could not. Either they were favoured students or they somehow paid extra bribery $. Anything you can think of could be a criteria. All of the judges sat in the audience except Doerner – how legit is a conducting competition when you see a conductor’s back?

    I had the not so fortunate privelege of participating the Moldova conducting competition too and let’s just say it was worse than this. Again, the main juror – Octav Calleya favoured all of his students even though their conducting was completely ineffective. Not to mention the concertmaster decides your fate just your look – she would purposely lead sections to play offtime or late so it would seem that your conducting is ineffective. When I saw other contestants who were making gestures that surely would have caused confusion in the orchestra, but to my surprise, the concertmaster saved him/her. Racial prejudice and biased judging makes this competition one to avoid as well. http://conducting-art.com/Conducting_Competition.html

    When asking for feedback after being cut from the first round – Calleya actually said my interpretation was WRONG. Since when is there a right or wrong? Judge me based on my skill on the podium please.

    • I am absolutly glad to have the oportunity to answer of any comment about Moldavian Competition!1:why you don´t said your name?2-whay you dond sayd that objectivly the jury VOTED and after the first round you have zero votes?3-why you only acuse with generalities as I”favoraised me students”or that their conducting is(after you)innefective” and not with argunent??4-if I EXPLAIN you that your interpretation was WRONG, and you don´t ask nothing more nobody from the jury,is because(and I explain you very clar)your conducting NEVER REFLECT CORECTLY the structure,the musical articulation,the direct relation of the melos with the orquestal voices(of tne score)to much with the head in the score(not the contrary or better-conducting of memory,without the write manual conducting tecnic,and finally your personal very poor expresivity(absoltly without conducting talent),between others secundary details(all me god students traid the best of all these cualities,and I NEVER favorised one of them).If you want to be judget-as you said!!-based on what you do on the podium-,without these obligatory conducting conditions,remain only your very poor “job” and nobody ask seriosly who and why, push you to conduct some orchestras.Come please(gratuitley)on my next intensive orchestral conductig course(2-3-4 december)and I will demostrate you(again)all what I saind before and now,only on your conducting”benefice”!

      • Interested Party says:

        Just been talking about masterclass experiences with my partner and a particularly negative experience with Maestro Calleya came up. We thought we’d google him and amazingly this article pops up as the 4th story. He was similarly told he was absolutely without conducting talent and he now has a busy career regularly conducting orchestras such as the LSO, Philharmonia and BBC orchestras, as well as at a number of orchestras and houses across Europe. I just thought Maestro Calleya should know this and perhaps he’ll think twice about damning students (customers/victims) in the future.

  • Even though some prizes were awarded, there were clearly no “winners” in this competition. It appears that the contestants were poorly served; the musicians in the orchestra were treated unreasonably; and the audience was robbed of the privilege and excitement of watching a genuine competition unfold. Fortunately, it is possible to find workshops and/or competitions that offer opportunities for artistic growth and recognition.

    Charles Gambetta, DMA
    Artist Faculty/Administrator
    International Institute for Conductors

  • I’m so sorry to hear about this. Next summer, if any of the conductors are interested in a non-competitive workshop taught by veterans in conducting pedagogy please come to our annual workshop in Czech Republic with the Martinu Philharmonic. If interested, please check out http://www.iciworkshops.com.

    The rep. next year will include Maher 5, Dvorak 6 and much more.

    Bahman Saless,
    International Conducting Institute

    • Brian says:

      A quick perusal of the ICI website indicates that conductors are guaranteed approximately 40 minutes of podium time (in 10-minute increments). As one who has been through this kind of “mill” in my own country, I would be better served to stay home and find a lesser-priced symposium, clinic or course in the U.S. Maybe it is simply time for a “caveat emptor” on all these kinds of activities. For the most part, I’ve been very fortunate, especially with programs sponsored by the former Symphonic Workshops. But now it seems as though nearly everyone is jumping into what must be a very lucrative venture.

      • Frederik Støvring Olsen says:

        Brian: Just to get facts right. ICI runs several workshops – the one mentioned by Mr. Saless is a workshop with +120 podium time. It’s a first class workshop which I have attended several times.

        Norman: Thank you for sharing this story!

      • Frederik Støvring Olsen says:

        Brian: Just to get facts right. ICI has taken over Symphonic Workshops workshop in Czech Rep. and runs now several workshops – the one mentioned by Mr. Saless is a workshop with +120 podium time. It’s a first class workshop which I have attended several times.

        Norman: Thank you for sharing this story!

  • J Bradley says:

    I was at the competition watching on the final 2 days. Here is how corrupt it was:

    – in the final, one of the competitors who won the prize angered the orchestra so much during his rehearsal, the whole orchestra walked off stage, leaving the competitor alone on the podium. He also ran out of time as he didn’t plan his rehearsal well and he got 11mins extra time. He won the tied prize.

    – one of the finalists was having help from the jury as he was conducting! he would turn around and ask balance related questions to the jury and they would respond telling him if it was ok or not! He won the tied prize.

    – one of the finalists missed his performance slot and was not disqualified. The jury let him in at the end of the competition without consulting the other contestants. He had hours more preparation time and conducted when he wanted, not when the order was drawn out of the hat. He won the tied prize.

    – of the four finalists, one didn’t receive anything (the Australian), although he was the clear winner in every way to everyone I spoke to through all the rounds and was left to stand alone on the stage in front of all the audience. He was the only one who received vocal bravos from the audience AND the orchestra after he conducted. Half the jury walked out and did not even appear for the announcement of prizes.

    – having said that, while the Aussi didn’t win anything, a special prize (no one knows what!) was given to someone cut from an earlier round!

    – the advertized audience prize was also not awarded and no-one knows the result of that.

    – the audience refused to leave the concert hall after the final and demanded an explanation from the jury (who left via the back door).

    – those who were supplied accommodation by the competition were given filthy dormitory rooms with 6 conductors in each room and shared bathroom facilities (which the contestants paid for). This was not mentioned before arrival.

    I’m sure there were many other corrupt things in this international competition! It was a real eye-opener and I wish all the finalists well, especially the person who ‘should’ have won. He was a clear future Maestro in that competition.

    • J Bradley says:

      Further to my above comment. The competition website states that “The number of the competitors is limited at 36”. Why were there 60? More money in competition organiser pockets?

  • Luciano says:

    Unfortunately there are probably a few competitions around like this…. though this does seem like an extreme example!

    Bottom line – for Masterclasses, don’t bother unless the teacher is a reputable one. For competitions, look at the jury list. If you don’t recognise any names, don’t waste your time. The final result of the competition will be a sham, either through corrupt practices, incompetence or a combination of the two.

    Even if you happen to win one of these ‘lesser’ conducting competitions, it will do nothing for your career.

  • Philip says:

    I saw the advert for this course, but judged it would not be good. People should really be able to tell this sort of thing. Paying money for “learning” only guarantees one thing – that you will soon have less money. Searching out masters will only cost you time and effort. I had the best conducting instruction of my life when I saw Ilya Musin, at 93, conduct Capriccio Italien with two pianos in a free masterclass. I never wanted to learn more from any courses I heard of.

    Cheats prey on the weak. They do it certainly because they are lazy, probably because they are not talented, and possibly because they learned how to cheat from other cheats a long time ago. Let’s not be one of them, hey? And let’s follow our hearts and not our Euros.

  • Jaded_from_competitions says:

    I was lucky to have not participated in this competition, but I saw a serious red-flag the day of the deadline for applications. I emailed my application to this competition the day before the deadline, and I was certain I would be accepted since I was a prize-winner from another conducting competition and had recently conducted with one of the top ensembles in Bucharest as well as some significant professional engagements in Vienna and St. Petersburg. Unexpectedly, I received a prompt email from the organizers in Germany, that before the deadline, they had already accepted 60 conductors and had to give preference to those who had registered first and for the masterclass. I was shocked to imagine that they would not even consider my credentials and would simply take any and all who paid ahead of time for the masterclass. What a relief that I didn’t waste my time.

  • RCW says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,
    I am the Director of the Festival and fortunately I have been informed about the existence of this blog.
    I understand when somebody is not pleased or disappointed with things regarding organisation or methods of teaching. But I can´t accept when disgusting lies are part of a subjective report posted anonymously.
    Please allow me to send the original informations to you.
    We had planed to invite 36 participants for the competition. The possibility to participate to both competition and masterclass was open.
    I received questions from many applicants such as: “Do I still have to send the recommandation letter and the DVD (as part of the documents for the competition application) if I come to the masterclass?” or : “I want to try also the competition. Is possible to apply for both?”
    My answers were: Of course. It is possible as long as you´ll send the required documents and these will be accepted. The participation in the course will not change the terms & conditions of the competition.
    The reason why we decided to accept more competitors (over the number of 36, which had been achieved long before the application deadline) was to give a chance, since many of them didn´t have the possibility to make a competition before.
    Here I give the numbers of the invited participants (out of 252 applications): 27 masterclass participants, out of them 22 who took part in the competition. Alltogether 60 competitors (appeared 55).
    If the author of the report has been thinking it would help to have a better chance in the competition by coming to the masterclass, this was really his interpretation and finally it was his decision to join both events.
    The accusation of corruption and immorality is an outrageous allegation.
    Regarding the chairmanship of the Maestro who as well led the mastercourse: this was from the very beginning mentioned on the site: “without voting”. We wanted to separate his functions very clearly.
    Regarding the pedagogical part: He answered to all questions of the conductors within their podium time. Many questions came afterwords. The answers of course had to wait until the end of the colleagues´ podium times.
    Then: the way how this participant is writting about a tired orchestra, about the prizes, even about the criteria of the jury is also very problematic. He mixes up numbers of competitors with numbers of masterclass participants and orchestra sessions. Why? The two orchestras have played in 8 sessions for the masterclass participants.
    “overworked and exhausted orchestra that has been playing 7 full days with 59 different conductors” is rubbish.
    In the competition the Radio Symphony Orchestra was engaged in two sessions, the string orchestra in one session.
    And again strangely shown: “By then it was Wednesday. I was then informed that my 30 minutes with the radio orchestra would be until next Monday… 4 long days in Bucharest, 35 degrees celsius.”
    Wednesday was the first competition day, no course, no announcement. On Thursday I was able to forward the information of an extra session with the Radio Symphony Orchestra for Monday afternoon. Coming for a mastercourse means to stay for the entire period following the course even when it is not your turn to conduct or to play. 35 degrees? Imagine that the orchestra was rehearsing in a hall and not outside.
    Further there is a very big mistake which he wrote regarding the prizes: on the site was very clearly announced: “the 1rst prize is an engagement in the final concert of the next edition of the festival” (never this year). The final of the competition was not more or less than the final concert of the festival 2011.
    Then there are again wrong presumptions regarding the money prizes. The jury decided to summarize the money prizes of the 2nd and 3rd prize for the 3 awarded finalists. As announced on the site, all finalists also did receive 150€ for travel costs.
    In order to correct further comments:
    – for the final decision the jury summed up the impressions of all rounds. The jury assessed the concrete work on technical skills, compository styles and their differences, esthetic messages and their ways of expression has still to be well structurated and implemented.
    – everybody did get the same podium time.
    – the “why” questions have been answerd to the finalists and of course because of discretion not to the audience.
    – the special prize of the jury was awarded as encouragement to one semifinalist.
    – since the audience of the opened rounds changed, it was not possible anymore to speak about an audience prize.
    – the accomodation in the shared rooms (4-6 bed not 6 conductors!) was from the very beginnig announced on the site. Everybody could decide to make the reservation over there (the costs were 5€ bed&breakfast per day). Nobody was forced. I did several times remember about the status quo in my correspondance with the participants.
    – the fees of similar events (very often with semi-professional orchestras) are much higher.
    The main reason for me to organize this event was to inspire, encourage, support talented musicians. And I want to offer an exchange of artistic ideas based on the deeper truth of arts that we all should cultivate and promote.
    The sense of the masterclass was from the very beginning to offer especially to young conductors a possibility of working with their intrument, as most of them finish their studies without practicing with a professional orchestra. Instrumentalists much more have the opportunity to play or practice on a very good instrument or to play in a renowned concert hall.
    Even though we have had only 4 editions of these masterclasses, we got feedback from several participants who won competitions or post graduated study places because of working and playing at this Festival.
    The competition especially is helping to achieve more psycological experience for the profession you´ve choosen. Increasing self-confidence allways will improve the career.
    I hope I can rectify the misplaced statements.
    By the way, I´m a romanian born and my team is working at this festival without getting any honoraries.

  • Cristian Ghetz says:

    Pacat sa auzim / citim de competitii care nu fac cinste si onoare tzelului sau spiritului in care a fost proiectat. Acest tip de articol nu entuziasmeaza pe posibilii participanti la editiile urmatoare ….. Nu doresc sa mai aud / citesc, de fapte nedrepte si “jupuiala pe fata” asupra unor oameni cinstiti de catre niste niste “fiinte” in “slujba” muzicii / intereselor personale ……… sau fonduri care sa stimuleze continuitatea cresterii nivelului educational, cultural si profesional al celor ce se implica si doresc sa evolueze, …… la suprafata …….. si defapt sunt “TUNURI” DATE NAIVILOR PARTICIPANTI ………
    Draga d-na directoare,
    Dvs. nu luati honorar, dar aveti probabil dividente de la cei pe care ii angajati sau ii honorati pt. seriozitatea si discernamintul cu care abordeaza acest festival, cum puteti sa lasati sa se intimple asa ceva?…mai ales ca sunteti romanca care v-ati facut cinstita ,,,,, in Germania ,,,,, si ultimii 3 ani in Romaania. Unde este spiritul acestui trend, si acelor care l-au sustinut si au sau mai au incredere in el?
    Am citit si articolul si raspunsul dumneavoastra….. unde este raspunsul si transparentza corectitudinii a acestui festival?
    Multumesc anticipat pt. raspuns
    Cu respect
    Cristian Ghetz

  • Me entero en este instante de la polemica sobre el concurso de Bucarest y sin saber donde escribir mejor ni cuanto espacio puedo tener,aclarare todo lo posible en torno a los concutsos que yo organizo:
    1.Sr.Lebrecht-que lo estimo y recomiendo mucho en mis cursos y clases,onformase Ud.mejor y no da noticias sin comprobar;porque es absolutamente falso lo dicho sobre el concurso de Moldavia,que no tiene nada que ver con muchos otros,precisamente por la rigurosidad,la objetividad y todo lo que se ofrece a los participantes.Y espero que directamente o en cualquier foro,se lo demostrare de inmediato.Una gran falta suya por ahora!
    2.Por mil razones,no he querido saber nada del concurso citado,aunque me he enterado de muchas cosas que simplemente no me interesan.Los concursos que yo organizo son ejemplos(SIN PUBLICIDAD!)de objetividad y honeadez perfecta siempre en el favor de los concursantes,No aparecera nadie abiertammente que ha sido desfavorecido,porque incluso el tribunal tiene para votar(y explicar luego si es requerido)siete puntos obligatorios que cualquier director debe cumplir,en concurso o fuera de el!alguna vez conmigo.Los que han estudiado alguna vez conmigo,son siempre de los mejor preparados y esto produce aveces ciierta confusion en los comentarios.
    3..Los jurados que yo presido,no discuten mas que algun caso de casi empate,DESPUES de una votacion del numero siempre impar de los miembros del jurado,todos directores en actico.
    4.Los participantes han tenido incluso la ocasion de practicar sin ser obligados,las obras del concurso,que eran en preparacion e incluso en un concierto publico de apertura,dirigido por un laureado del anterior concurso.No puede existir ningun candidato que tenga quejas de todo lo acontecido en mis concursos,salvo una mala intencionalidad buscada.
    5.Uno de los criterios basicos,en favor siempre del talento directorial buscado,ha sido dirgir cuanto mas posible y esto se ha cumplido completamente,tratandose asi de 10-12minen la primera fase(30 concursantes)25 min en la fase segunda,50 min en la semifinal y aprox 60 min en la final!!
    6.No existe ninguna razon”recaudatoria”;la unica tasa de participacion es de 125E,incluso devuelta en ciertos casos.Cuando en la edicion del año 2009 de Rumania,el esgundo premio fue”ex aequo”,los dos laureados recibieron la cantidad estipulada y no repartieron el premio a la mitad.
    7.Tanto el primer concurso(Rumania-2009)como el segundo(Moldavia 2011)han sido de todos los puntos de vista,exemplos a seguir para otros ,aparte de verdaderos exitos para cada ciudad su publico como para los organizadores.

    • Mr Calleya organises a conducting contest which bears no resemblance to the ones discussed. He enumerates the differences. I am grateful for his comments.

      • Thank you for your reply!Anyone can prouve from many form that all what I write is absolutly realy y I would like to answer with pleasure and to explaind any kind of question,for the past and the next conductors competition,As I declare and can be prouved(in six languages,one some best as others(spanish,german,english,italian,french,romanian+some rusish).All me best!