Ridiculous results at International Mahler Competition

Ridiculous results at International Mahler Competition


norman lebrecht

July 05, 2020

The first prize at the Mahler Competition in Bamberg was awarded to Finnegan Downie Dear, who on Friday gave easily the most uncertain reading of Mahler’s fourth symphony I have ever seen. He takes away 30,000 Euros and a career boost.

The gifted young British conductor is represented by Askonas Holt. The agency’s ex-boss Martin Campbell-White was on the jury. We trust he recused himself in the voting.

Second prize went to Thomas Jung (Germany).

Third prize was split between the three remaining finalists Wilson Ng, Harry Ogg and Katharina Wincor.

Clearly the jury was unable to give a clear upbeat, rather like some of the finalists.

Given all the difficulties presented by Covid-19 and all the competition’s past achievements, this event was a total shambles.

This was the jury:

Marina Mahler
Jakub Hrůša
Pamela Rosenberg
John Carewe
Martin Campbell-White
Ara Guzelimian
Barbara Hannigan
Lahav Shani
Juanjo Mena
Mark Stringer
Miroslav Srnka
Marcus Axt
Martin Timphus

UPDATE: Mahler Competition should be cancelled.


  • puzzled says:

    Finnegan Downie Dear, Thomas Jung and Wilson Ng were the finalists.

    Ogg and Wincor stopped at the semifinal stage.

  • Mars says:

    Thank you Mr. Lebrecht!

    You really nailed it.

    Ridiculous, the others weren’t even in the final!

    It is an affront to the 3 finalists who made it to the final.

    The “conducting teacher” from Vienna who was in the jury is comparing the winner to Carlos Kleiber on his FB page!!!???!!WTF

    Apparently if you read his posts it seems that it was only good for his ego that he was allowed to hover in higher spheres to be in company with Shani, Hrusa and Co, nothing more.

    Beyond good and evil

    • Pinkclarinet says:

      Well, obviously you are talking about the jury member Mark Stringer (teacher at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien). Mr Stringer has taught in Vienna some of the recent ‘raising stars’, but seeing what these stars do on the podium and his virtually non-existing performance career, I doubt of his knowledge and skills to recognise good conducting. Perhaps he is better in promoting and lobbying on behalf of his students than in actually teaching.

      • Mars says:

        It is good if a teacher pushes his students but they should also be good at what they do. Those I have seen are all conducting the same way and are not worth talking about.Of course he tries to make them bigger as they are.

    • Jungfrau says:

      Any competition with Mark Stringer on the jury can not be taken seriously.

      • Albanberg says:

        Indeed. The only reason people go to Vienna to study with Mark Stringer (and not with the other two conducting teachers at the Music University) is because what he lacks in conducting knowledge/experience and teaching quality he makes up for in advocating and lobbying for [some] of his students. I witnessed a conversation where he talked incessantly about one of his former students trying to convince a senior representative of a mejor agency to meet with him.

        That is how careers are made now: through lobbying, personal favors, social media, image consultancy… who cares about music anymore!?

  • Peter says:

    What does it mean for a jury “to give a clear upbeat” ?

    • Zang says:

      Probably nothing as the winner not had even one.
      Listening to his Webern was shocking. I have never heard a more dis synchronized orchestra in my life.

  • Observer says:

    Harry Ogg (also Askonas Holt) and Katharina Wincor were not even in the final round, so I wouldn’t call them finalists… Yet they got a prize! Weird, isn’t it?

    According to their website “Even those who cannot make it to the finals are invited to stay until the final concert and to take individual advice and lasting experiences from Bamberg through discussions with members of the jury and the orchestra.” No awards mentioned.

  • Don’t be so vitriolic ? says:

    Finnegan Downie Dear is a world class conductor and joins the leagues of other legendary musicians you’ve decided to write incoherently about in your inadequate excuse for prose. What an accolade for him!

  • Anon says:

    I think this is the first time I’ve seen you criticize a British musician. It really must have been an “uncertain reading”.
    Also, I’m surprised the jury seems to include only one musician from within the orchestra.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Among the stupid comments that get pass our moderators, this one deserves joint 3rd prize (along with several others)

    • Zang says:

      Bamberg orchestra member quote: “ I wanted to tell finnegan: now that you won and it’s behind you, can you tell me what the f*** were you doing on the podium? Why do you take it so slow?!?!?!”

  • RIGOLETTO says:

    What did you expect? Look at the jury: some of the members of the jury cannot give an upbeat themselves (Barbara Hannigan,), some are not conductors/musicians (Martin Campbell-White, Pamela Rosenberg, Marcus Axt, Miroslav Srnka), have had little/no career outside conducting teaching (Mark Stringer).

    Competitions are a joke. They are just a mechanism for agencies to sign aspiring conductors and get them to get some immediate exposure in orchestras as part of the price. Cities and orchestras get exposure from organizing the competition (do we hear of the Bamberger Symphoniker from anything other than the competition?). And agencies don’t want the best conductor, they want the best conductor FOR THEIR BUSINESS: someone who is young (so they have more years to get money from them), and image-wise easy to sell (young, atractive, someone who puts on a big showf or the audience, and if it is from a minority and/or woman even better!). Music does not matter.

    • Novagerio says:

      I hear the Bamberger Symphoniker on a daily basis, with Joseph Keilberth and Jonathan Nott. Otherwise I agree with Rigoletto 99%. Pity such a great and historic orchestra has to serve one week as a lab-rabbit for the vanity of rookies, agencies and non-musicians…

      • The View from America says:

        Helps pay the bills, no doubt. Those German arts subsidies don’t go as far as they used to …

  • Third Prize says:

    “Third prize was split between the three remaining finalists Wilson Ng, Harry Ogg and Katharina Wincor.”

    Harry Ogg and Katharina Wincor didn’t even conduct in the final and get to split 3rd prize with Wilson Ng? This doesn’t make any sense and only gives the impression that some jury members insisted they made a mistake selecting Wilson Ng into the final round.

    A special mention to Harry Ogg and Katharina Wincor would have been the more logical result.

    • Lars says:

      Wilson in the final round is a mistake. He’s just another young conductor who looks good but has no substance.

    • MDR says:

      At least Harry Ogg actually has some substance. He should’ve been light years ahead of where he ended up in the competition. From where I was watching it seemed as though they panel only wanted the nice, airy-fairy types. I mean, Thomas Jung 2nd prize – really?!

      • Lars says:

        Well look at Wilson and you know…they just want ‘actors’, or conductors who practice in front of the mirror.

        • FrauGeigerin says:

          Yes, because it is entertaining for the audience… they go home saying “how good, he had so much passion, I really liked when he/she did this or that thing…”.

          I play once a year for a conducting class of a major conservatoire. I’d say that easy 85% of the student-conductors are doing a choreography for the benefit of the audience, not the music. Most of them graduate with honours, but never learn what conducting really is.

          What do we need? It is difficult to say what makes a conductor good , but when I see a good one in front of me I know immediately. The better the conductor, the more difficult it is to tell what makes them really good. I think it is that everything they do is for the music; they make everything they do about the music, not about themselves, not about their own pleasure or ego, not about doing a dance for the audience, not about how they feel conducting that piece. Some of the best conductor I have played with (and believe me, I have played with many since I was a student) have been called “boring” by critics: they didn’t care that the music result was absolutely first class. I always say that conductors are like contractors: they should work on the service to the client, but not enjoy it too much.

        • Player says:

          Although I know what you really mean and agree on that, still have to say, Carlos Kleiber also practiced a lot in front of the mirrow… And sometimes it’s necessary for conductors to check if they can show their musical intentions with their arms precisely.

  • RW2013 says:

    Just goes to show that even if you “don’t know anything about string playing” (by her own admission), a Mahlerian third prize (sic) can be yours.
    Arme Gustav!

  • Nielsen says:

    When they eliminated to Christian Vasquez on the second round I thought “this is a joke”. It’s ridiculous.

    But it was worse when people who was not even in the final round were awarded.

    • Novagerio says:

      I wonder what on earth Christian Vásquez was doing in this competition; he’s in his mid 30’s and has held positions in Venezuela, Swedish Gävle and Norwegian Trondheim. Isn’t he “enough launched”? Or is it another Christian Vásquez we are talking about?

  • cg151 says:

    Many interesting comments here. I followed the competition this year with, if not quiet interest, then a lot of curiosity, and picked the winner pretty early on in the semi’s. FDD’s work that I’ve seen has always been impressive, and reflects his steadily building profile – something that may now push him up to the next levels perhaps – time will tell. Is he Kleiber, or Dudamel? No of course not, but such comparisons are pretty pointless, let’s just judge him on his own merits. As competitions go, and conducting competitions are always weird – I though it good to see it all in an unflamboyant setting – no audience, no black tie gala concert for the applause, just seeing all the participants given a good chunk of time in varied repertoire to take it apart and show the orchestra and jury what they can do. There were moments in the ‘final’ that I forgot I was watching a competition rather than just a pretty good rehearsal. In the real world these guys and girls would have a few more sessions to put everything together for a performance etc. I didn’t feel we were seeing performances, which is a good thing I think. Sure – there were some obviously slapdash ensemble moments which you wouldn’t expect with an orchestra like Bamberg – but let’s also allow that the orchestra themselves were playing in a very unusual socially distanced setting, which can’t help but throw the players themselves off regardless of who’s at the front. Jury wise – meh, lots of comments of how qualified many of them were to be there, I’d argue quite a lot, musicians and non-musicians. Martin Campbell White being responsible for launching (and maintaining) the careers of many of course, from Rattle, Harding and Ticciati (Dudamel before he jumped ship) and now presumably Finnegan Downie Dear, Harry Ogg and Vasquez who are already on the books. Mark Stringer is hugely respected as a pedagogue, as is John Carewe – both influential with Rattle and Harding to this day I’m sure. Swipes at Barbara Hannigan are obviously aimed at her own conducting career – which I don’t know enough about to comment on – but as the soprano soloist in the sessions and a stellar musician – she was totally qualified to be part of this Jury. The machinations of the conducting world are the truly dark arts. The powers that be picked there horses long ago and we’ll be seeing a lot of these names further down the road I’m quite sure. Did FDD need this win to further his career? Probably not, though neither did Rattle with the Bournemouth comp. I enjoyed seeing the process a bit more up close, would have been interesting also to see some of the deliberations with the Jury, though without going ‘X-Factor’ with it. Hats off to all the competitors – standing up in front of any orchestra of quality is hugely daunting whatever level you’re at, and good luck to FDD from hereon as now it really begins!

  • Nicht Schleppend says:

    Music competitions are suspect at the best of times, and we know some are entirely corrupt. Welcome to classical music!
    Judging by the semi-finals and final the first prize winner [FDD] certainly exhibited confidence and control as well as clear, engaging, and effective communication with the players, even if he may have been feeling his way into the Mahler. How many of the competitors will have already conducted a performance of Mahler 4? He was also hugely impressive in the new music. Based on minimal viewing online FDD seemed the likely winner, and let’s see how he does tonight . . .
    As to “uncertainty” in Mahler – Norman knows better than most of this essential element in the composer’s music.

  • Nigel Goldberg says:

    Besides the poor so and so’s who ‘have’ to enter these competitions, who cares any more. They are so discredited, nobody can really be inerested in their results.

  • Full disclosure: Finn assisted me when he was fresh out of the RAM. It was his first assisting gig. He is—without question—the most naturally gifted musician I’ve ever encountered. His aural skills are *insane*. You may not like his reading of the Mahler (although I personally would wait until the Winner’s Concert before coming to a view on that) but what I saw was a musician with incredible communication skills and a really clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and why.

    I’m not a fan of competitions in general, and doubt I’d have taken much notice of this one had FDD not been participating. I generally think that they reward beautiful technique at the expense of musicianship. On this occasion, its a pleasant surprise that this wasn’t the case.

    As others have said, Finn didn’t need this win to help him—everyone who has worked with him knows how exceptional he is. But it won’t do any harm.

    • OperaOrchPlayer says:

      Insane aural skills do not a great conductor make. Some of the best I’ve worked with couldn’t sing a note (a certain Nelsons particularly notable in that regard).

  • MusicianK says:

    The third-prized Wilson Ng has always conducted like an actor (on the podium to “look good and cool” only), instead of as an actual conductor who tries to artistically bring out the best from the orchestra and perhaps even inject a little sense of personality. He has charmed some people yes, notably the Seoul Philharmonic, but that’s about it with him. It was the wrong choice, as many have noted.

  • Edward says:

    why so many judges (13)?

  • ItsNotAboutMusic says:

    The entire pre-selection process of the candidates was already a failure, many applicants that can conduct for real (with stronger conducting experience with important orchestras, own musical ideas, nice body language/baton technic, stronger musical qualities, etc) where out of the preselection for this competition. But that was never the point, if an applicant shows good qualities as conductor/musician. It is about marketing potential for the agencies – just take a look, which members of the jury picked them.

    The competition should have been postponed for next year, exactly as Salzburg Conducting Competition. But Askonas Holt was, as well as all agencies right now, desperate to have a reason to be able to sell again (to sell the winner I mean), which is understandable since they don’t get almost any income right know through their artists in Corona-times. Anyway, we already know, what are competitions for.

    3rd Prize for a non-finalist is just outrageous, now the agencies can sell a non-finalist as a 3rd Prize winner. Just ridiculous.

    Welcome (again and again) to the real world of agencies-dominated classical music. Probably, the only people that can really judge a participant for their musical qualities are the orchestra musicians.

  • Not fair says:

    The Askonas Holt Competition in Bucharest (you know what I’m talking about). Hope for the best from Malko competition

  • kate percival says:

    God, I had forgotten how profoundly nasty the classical music world is. What is the matter with you people? This was a competition to give space for young musicians to develop. I should have thought that given the pandemic, the philistines in the white house and downing street, and above all the existential threat to all live performance, you might have been able to relish the musicianship and sheer enjoyment on offer. I only watched the finals. but I saw plenty to keep me engaged.
    Of course it is not helpful having the snarky comments of Mr Lebrecht, who should know better, to start the ball rolling.
    Shame on all of you.

    • OperaOrchPlayer says:

      Sorry, but I’m all for calling out these competitions for what they are – fraudulent and corrupt vanity projects, engineered by agencies and bankrolled by corporations who want the good-karma publicity.

      I have to work with the winners of these damn things and I can tell you, they’re by and large absolutely hopeless. I’ll take a conductor who’s never stepped foot inside a competition, but who’s worked their way through the system, any day of the week.

      These competitions don’t give the space for young musicians to develop, they give the agencies a machine through which they can earn money. End of.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh please, spare us your pious, high and mighty drivel.

      Do you have any idea how competitive this industry is? Probably at least 400 applicants at the initial stages. So pardon us, if it appears that there is some impropriety. Had the “honorable” jury with students in the competition done the right thing and recused themselves, this mess could have been at least partially averted. I’d suggest if you want to cast shame somewhere, you do it toward people like Mark Stringer, who quite obviously and flagrantly has a conflict of interest with Maestro Dear. It’s shameful that this competition (and others) have allowed this type of thing to be perpetuated year after year.

      • Anonymous ll says:

        Yeah just bare in mind that Campbell was one of 3 persons who picked the final candidates….. surprisingly 3 Out of 12 were askonas.

    • Brook No Idiots says:

      Sing out, Louise!

    • Erik says:

      Welcome to the club Kate, indeed you are profoundly right: SHAME ON ALL OF US !!!
      Actually your comment couldn’t be more appropriate since we are all aware of what you’re saying, most of us would agree and, yet, we all have chosen to ignore it, to keep quiet, and be partners in crime of this horror story.

      The business of classical music has very little to do with the profoundness and beauty it evokes.
      While I confess it with embarrassment, and strongly feel the responsibility to echo your candid comments, I very much doubt my response will have any reaction or be supported by any up or down thumbs from our fellow masked bloggers, mainly because we are all hopelessly trapped in this anti-musical paradigm.

      You would have imagined that the role of a conductor should carry much more weight and importance in the orchestral world. It does actually but like many other things, strange times are these in which we live, it has turned senseless and highly contradictory towards a true artistic leadership.
      There are many other problems to add to this shameful equation, maybe one of the most disgusting is to see how many orchestras have to put up with conductors they do not at all like nor respect.
      To simply blame the artist’s managers, as it has been voiced on this story, wouldn’t be a totally objective description of the problem, but the truth is they are at the helm of deciding who is to make a conducting career and who is not.

      One last relevant word about Mr Lebrecht and the “snarky” way he moderates what has become one of the most important sources of information in the classical music world. I’d rather have the dirty truth than being left deaf and blind…!

  • Manu says:

    Marcus Rudolf Axt is the chief of Bamberg and the kind of manager that is very respected by stake holders, politicians, sponsors, agents, but his interest in music is zero. All political. The jury is an example of his style. And sorry, Hrusa, as an artist, is very far away from Nott. Hrusa and Axt are good level but just everything ist neat, expectable, nothing out of the box, nothing original. This style of leading is boring and kills inspiration and creativity.

  • Kurt Muroki says:

    A Mahler symphony should never be chosen for a conducting competition.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    Finnegan Downie Dear
    Was the best who did appear
    His stroke was like a bolt
    Just ask Askonsas Holt

    The jury did agree
    That Thomas Jung looked free
    When leading the musicians
    The sounds came to fruition

    That leaves Mr Ng and the odd Mr Ogg
    Along with Ms Wincor. Did she bring her dog?
    Together they all claimed third prize
    Much to everyone’s surprise

    Norman did decree
    for everyone to see
    That the competition was lacking
    With the jury sent packing

    When all is said and done
    And everything has been won
    Only time will tell
    Which of these will fare well

  • Rob says:

    An under characterised Mahler 4 from what I’ve seen.

    What a stupid competition!

  • Angel says:

    Finnegan Downie Dear conducted with more musicality, passion and sincerity than I’ve ever seen of a young conductor. You can tell that he is highly intelligent and has an exceptional ear. The way he handled the challenging contemporary repertoire throughout the competition was awe-inspiring and his growth in his interpretation of the Mahler symphony over the duration of the week was wonderful to watch. He told a highly compelling story and the orchestra were with him every step of the way. He conducts with heart and soul.

    The whole event was a joy to watch and what an achievement for both the organisers, orchestra and hugely talented young conductors, especially in this current climate. Bravo to all!

    • OperaOrchPlayer says:

      Well I can tell you one thing for sure, the orchestra certainly weren’t “with him every step of the way.” They were as bemused as the rest of us.

  • Doug Grant says:

    The only comment I can make is that Dear’s Mahler 4 was truly awful – no pulse, no coherence, no momentum. He should forget Mahler and stick to composers with whom he has affinity

    • Gustav says:

      Finnegan did not at all follow what’s written in the score. Sometimes he does the opposite. He drags where Mahler writes Accelerando.

      It seems he is just following the orchestra…

  • Zang says:

    Harry Ogg and Christian Vasquez who easily went to the competitions second round are also represented by Askonas Holt.

    Shambles. If the winners of the 3rd prize were the semi-finalists, why not giving prizes to contestants who didn’t mate it the the 3rd or second round??

    It’s a joke.

  • Appalled says:

    These poor musicians that everyone so easily and freely trashes. Regardless of your thoughts on competitions, these are young people who you are carelessly bullying. The arrogant and vicious nature of Mr Lebrecht and his followers is unbelievable, at a time, where we desperately need kindness and hope in, and towards, our industry.

    • Jehi says:

      I think the majority of the people here are not trashing or bullying, they are just upset that better competitors didn’t get the recognition they deserve.

  • Jabittedirigierdochmalselbst says:

    I dont get it when people trash conductors who look good on the podium. Great conducting technique is an asset. Firstly you have better ensemble in the orchestra, secondly you dont have to talk much if you can show more with your baton. 😉 But anyhow competitions are overrated, since jury and even orchestral musicians have different views on everything.

    • Jehi says:

      I think that people here are not talking about if somebody is able to get good ensemble or to show things without talking much – that’s basic conducting technique. I also assume that most of the people don’t mind if somebody’s conducting is “looking good”. For example Kleiber’s conducting was aesthetically very attractive and elegant, but at the same time there was always a necessity in his gestures to achieve a certain musical idea.

      The criticism is directed towards those who are only focusing on “visual effects”. I think it is recognizable (unfortunately not for all, that probably the reason for so many charlatans among “conductors”) if somebody’s conducting movements are “prepared/studied” or if it comes naturally out of the understanding of the score and the will to achieve a certain musical result. If good or not is another question – with those who only focus on visual effects the musical result in general is poor, not only because the orchestra musicians are immediately seeing through “the show”.

    • Wayne says:

      Exactly! Since when did actual conducting ability become so unimportant when judging conductors?
      Does a wonderful orchestra, like Bamberg, really need a conductor to tell them how to play/interpret Mahler 4?
      A good conductor’s information is in their conducting. Sound, phrasing, character, articulation, musical gestures, etc. Wilson Ng is the only finalist who had the ability to show these things.

  • Kleiner says:

    Just a recap:
    The talented conductors who were of a true competition to the askonas puppets were:

    Yeo Ryeong Ahn

    Killian Farrell

    Orr Guy

    Andreas Hansson

    Piero Lombardi Iglesias

    Mikhail Shekhtman

    Christian Vasquez

    Most of them were kicked out just to clear the way for this shameful askonotition.

  • Kleiber says:

    Just a recap:
    The candidates who were of a true competition and that were kicked out just to clear the way for the askonas pupest show were:

    Yeo Ryeong Ahn

    Killian Farrell

    Orr Guy

    Andreas Hansson

    Piero Lombardi Iglesias

    Mikhail Shekhtman

    Christian Vasquez

  • will says:

    “Competitions should be for horses, not musicians” – Bela Bartok. Someone had to post it!

  • not an actor says:

    Wilson Ng’s style and interpretation may not be to everyone’s liking, but calling him ‘no substance’ or ‘actor-like conductor’ seems seriously prejudiced.

    Compared with FDD, his Mahler revealed much more characterization and rhythmical interest. His gesture were effective in eliciting responses from the players, rather than merely good looking.

    Sorry to see his prize being shared with the two non-finalists.

  • Player says:

    A jury of a conducting competition means a group of people who conduct themselves or at least know conducting very well. So I can see the reason why a singer was invoveld in the jury because she works with different conductors in her whole life. I can somehow understand why a composer was there because he can at least define if his work got wonderfully interpreted.
    But why an artist agent was invited? Is he able to know those full scores perfectly and judge if the messages showed by participants are reasonable enough or not?

    Nowadays a lot of competitions invite agency as a jury member, this is already ridiculous. Check the jury names of Chopin piano competition, can you find anyone who ‘s not a piano master?

    An agency should always be involved in a conducting competition, only aims to give winners a true career help, instead of making the call of the result and even using the competition as a tool to earn their own musicians profits. What a shame.

    • Nick says:

      “…Check the jury names of Chopin piano competition, can you find anyone who ‘s not a piano master? “…… YES, I CAN!!

  • Nick says:

    Not the first and not the last time. Unfortunate, but there is hardly a decent competition left in the world of classical music.