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296 hopefuls apply for one (very) small conducting prize

The Besancon Competition boasts a record entry this year – 296 applications have been accepted from candidates under the age of 35.

The competition charges every candidate 250 Euros (plus bank charges) to register – that’s 74,000 Euros in the bank – and invites 20 of them to Besancon for the finals.

The winner gets 12,000 Euros. And a certificate.

So why do so many apply?

You tell me.

(Please make it convincing.)

Concours 2011©Y.Petit (32)

photo (c) Yves Petit/Besancon Festival, press use

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  1. It’s worst with some composition competitions where they charge €50 to register… ¡and the prize is €600 and a performance of the piece (for which they don’t pay the composer anything)!

  2. It’s difficult to find a believable answer. They sure have a lot of expenses, orchestra included, plus they do preselections in different parts of the world. Anyway I do not like at all this competition. The fee is really absurd, the entire proceeding debatable. Teaching in Milano Conservatorio I do not encourage my students to go there, advising them to apply for competition where the fee is not so high and concerts are given as a prize. By the way years ago 2 of my students went to Besancon and after the preselection they have received a letter, They were not be chosen but were assured they were very close to be selected. Really a strange way to be kind.
    Vittorio Parisi

  3. Mark Stratford says:

    Besancon small-print:

    “the candidates accept without remuneration the recording of the competition for any
    uses on radio, television and the Internet, live, recorded or in streaming “

    • … is mostly the case with professional singers in top theatres, just change “compeition” with “performance”…….. so nothing new there…….

  4. Although those candidates who are invited will get a refund if the whole competition is cancelled, it’s not 100% clear from neither the French nor the English version of the rules whether candidates not passed in the preselection rounds will get a refund of the 250€ or not. Since they only invite 20 participants to Besançon, that would leave them with only 5,000 € — hard to finance this kind of competition on that without a lot of sponsors.

    The entrance fee of 250 € is quite small, of course, if you have to travel e.g. from Tokyo to Berlin or from South America to any of the other pre-selection venues just in order to audition. As to why so many apply, I suppose there are that many hopeful young conductors out there with nothing better to do! :) The rules do mention the “possibilities” of receiving some future engagements with some associated orchestras, but no guarantees of that except for the money prize.

  5. Norman, At 20 years of age I was the youngest candidate accepted into the competition in 1984, reaching the semi -finals. Talking to the other conductors at the time, it was clear that the only reason any of them applied and participated in what most agreed was a lottery system, was the hope that they might draw some attention to themselves and therefore further their conducting career. Austrian Wolfgang Dorner was the winner that year.

    No two conductors seem to take the same path to a successful career. Talent and hard work are a given, luck and being in the right place at the right time seems to play a rather large role. In the end; “he who dares…” and “stay in the game…” are two important rules of play…. !! :):)

  6. John Kelly says:

    Any self respecting casino only rakes 15% of the prize pool in a poker tournament. Probably better chance of a decent return on investment playing in a World Series of Poker Event. Oh, sorry,it’s a conductor’s competition……….probably even more of a crapshoot………….

  7. If you have a look at the laureates’ list since the creation of the competition, you see many obscure names, but some made a breakthrough and actually conduct for a living. So maybe winning can help a career.

    Gerd Albrecht (1957), Seiji Ozawa (1959), Michel Plasson (1962, won in the category “non professionnal” !), Jiri Kout and Claire Gibault (1965), Jesus Lopez Cobos (1968), Gunther Neuhold, Gabriel Chmura and Jacques Mercier (1970), Hubert Soudant (1971), Sylvain Cambreling (1974), Marc Soustrot (1975), Yoel Levi (1978), Wolfgang Dorner and Patrick Fournillier (1984), Pascal Rophé (1988), Lionel Bringuier (2005).

    Some lead french provincial careers and are probably internationally quite unkonwn.

    • Tero-Pekka Henell says:

      Osmo Vänskä 1982…

      • Nicolás Pasquet (1989) curretly one of the most respected conducting tutors (professor in Weimar).
        Rodolfo Saglimbeni (1985), 2nd prize, principal conductor Caracas Orchestra
        Ali Rahbari (1977)
        Luis Antonio García Navarro (1967) First music director of Teatro Real in Madrid, Württemberg State Theater GMD.
        Sergiu Comissiona (1956)

  8. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Why do they do it? 1. They hope to be discovered by a member of the jury, the press (note Christian Merlin from Le Figaro as a jury member) or any managers who happen to show up for the finals. John de Lancie, the former solo oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra, once said to me that real conductors would swim through a sea of merde (he spoke French) just to get the chance to wave their arms in front of an orchestra. He also said that real conductors don’t have brains like other people; instead, they have filing cabinets in their head with drawers a mile long because they never forget anyone or anything especially the mistakes that players make. There is at least a grain of truth to his cynicism.

    From their website: Alexander Gibson, Sergiu Comissiona, Gerd Albrecht, Seiji Ozawa, Michel Plasson, Zdenek Macal, Jiri Kout, Jesus Lopez Cobos, Hubert Soudant, Sylvain Cambreling and Yutaka Sado are among the most prestigious winners of this Conducting Competition. And here is the complete list since 1951, for you gluttons for punishment (I’m in that group, lol):

    Here is this year’s jury.
    ◾Gerd Albrecht (President, conductor, Germany),
    ◾Jacques Mercier (musical director and resident conductor of the Orchestre National de Lorraine, France)
    ◾Christian Merlin (classical music critic and musicologist, France),
    ◾Misato Mochizuki (composer, Japan),
    ◾Jorma Panula (conductor and professor, Finland),
    ◾Jean-François Verdier (musical director of the Orchestre Victor-Hugo Besançon Franche-Comté, France).

    The 250 Euro entrance fee is totally NON-refundable for all applicants unless Besancon is subject to nuclear attack (I believe that there is a centrale nucleaire close-by!).

    Are you convinced, Norman?

    • I’m convinced by the candidates’ desperation, Bob, less by the eithics of contests that feed false hopes – and feed themselves on them. best, Norman

      • It’s the canary in the coal mine – a competition whose very inanity and slim odds being so popular and so highly inscribed tells you something about what the career path is for young conductors in general: a crap shoot.

  9. This is sick. So may bad conductors out there ruining great pieces of music..

    • attitudes like this are even more harmful to the development of good conducting talent than these so-called competitions.

  10. Dr. Marc Villeger says:


  11. Being a young orchestral conductor, I would like to offer the following:

    The twenty-first Century Conductor Dilemma:

    Conductors young and old are faced with a multitude of problems in the twenty-first century. Under constant scrutiny of the media, orchestra management and the public eye it remains a fact that no stone can be left unturned in a conductor search. However, one aspect of our field that has become particularly alarming of late is the emphasis placed on visual/video materials in applications. This has become overwhelming to the point that much musicality has been lost in our translations of what a score is trying to portray. My generation has given birth to the era of the YouTube conductor; organizations now rarely request audio material in conductor searches yet favor a ten minute demo clip displaying a vastly variable array of conducting techniques.

    One has to question the validity of such a request as it seems impossible to judge a book by its cover. However, with the recent emergence of dramatic young personalities, it has become impossible for young conductors not to pander to the needs of our new market. One must be courageous, theatrical, adventurous, well groomed, thin, and above all a blockbuster visual personality for his/or her organization. As a result, the music has suffered and I think that we should all raise the question: Why?

    • Since a few months, I am the manager of the Besançon Music Festival, organising the The Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors since 1951.
      To present this competition only with the information about the number of candidates and the price is of course too short and caricatural. The information is true, the price for the winner is “only” 12 000€, but I confirm that we have some partnership with more that 30 international symphonic orchestras which are engage the winner (and sometimes the other finalists). In addition, the winner benefits from an international media visibility, and the festival invite him (or her) in the next festival, as soon as possible.
      I have also to explain that this competition as a specificity : it is open to all, no preliminary diplome is required. And for the first time in 2013, the applications was registered only on a dedicated website, so the procedure was easier. It could explain that applies record.

      The money collected from the registrations will help to the organisation charges, very heavy because of the international selection, and because of the sessions with orchestras, soloists, chorus, in September.

      The competition organisation requires a budget around 350 000€ :
      - pre-selection in Berlin (6 days), Besançon (4 days), Beijing (2 days), Montreal (days), with 2 pianists, 2 membres of the jury, and me : approx; 50 000€
      - sessions with 2 symphonic orchestras, 1 chorus, 5 soloists (fee, travels, accomodation): around 200 000€
      - jury (7 people), administration (4 people , shared with festival organization), communication, logistic, taxes,… : more than 100 000€
      Of course, the candidates insription rights help our budget.

      The Festival and the competition are organized with only 4 people, employees by an non-profit organization. We know that the organization of the competition is not perfect, we try to improve it.
      But I think that the results are real, if we have received so many applications, it is probably because the Besançon Competition remains the most serious, famous and respected in the world.

      • If all this is true, then all suggestions of expoitation concerning this competition are unfounded. I apologize for my contribution in this respect. Chapeau for the festival & competition!

      • “- sessions with 2 symphonic orchestras, 1 chorus, 5 soloists (fee, travels, accomodation): around 200 000€”…

        That sounds quite reasonable to me…

        “- jury (7 people), administration (4 people , shared with festival organization), communication, logistic, taxes,… : more than 100 000€”

        Assuming that the 4 admins do not weigh on the budget too much, I think that there might be some capacity here to reduce the application fees for the contestants to something between 100€ – 150€ if the jury budget is reduced accordingly, by perhaps 10% – 15% … Considering that the renommé of the competition at Besançon is indeed very high, it should be an honour to serve on such a prestigious jury, n’est-ce pas? :)

    • Michaela says:

      To David Gargaro:

      Oh, please stop whining.

      Do you think this dilemma is unique to conductors? There is even MORE pressure in this respect put on soloists and even orchestral players these days. Instrumentalists, whether soloists or orch. players, have to to be not only young, but good looking, sexy, charismatic, dress well and LOTS more. And if you’re an instrumentalist, just TRY to survive after age 50. Composers, believe it or not, have their beefs about this, too, I understand.

      Let’s take Dudamel for example. He has a lot going for him, but let’s face it, he’s not an especially good-looking guy. I doubt if an agent would give him the time of day if he were trying to make it as, say, a concert violinist. Yet all he needs are youth and energy and of course, his talent, to cut it as a conductor. Instrumentalists need that and SO much more. Even someone as cute as Yuja has to resort to revealing clothing to sell cds, apparently.

      Conductors can be old or ugly or both and no one gives a hoot.

      You have youth on your side. Many do not. It could be a lot worse. Conductors can work well into their dotage whereas instrumentalists cannot and face HUGE criticism if they even try. Count your lucky stars and just make the stupid audition videos.

  12. I doubt the numbers have been this big every year. This is a sad reflection on the fact that there is far less work in the arts right now, so young performers are turning to competitions etc. just to keep their skills up and in the hope of getting some kind of recognition, rather than getting valuable experience from actual performances. I think this trend will continue across competitions in all disciplines.
    The prize fund here really isn’t bad. Much better than most competitions. And with 296 candidates, are the jury really expected to hear them all?

  13. I think it is rather straight forward.
    The prize money is irrelevant. The motivation is to win, to be recognised, to get a step ahead in a fiercely competitive market for wannabe conductors.
    It is actually a backwards logic:
    If the competition or award has credibility, then the prize money doesn’t matter, in fact there doesn’t need to offer any prize money. Like a knight-hood, an honorary degree.
    If the competition has no credibility, then the only way to attract competitors is to offer big prizes.

    Tchaikovsky prize – 20k euros,
    Leeds piano competition, – first prize 18k pounds
    BBC young musician of the year, – 2k pounds.
    Academy Awards (Oscar) – zero.

    Britain’s got talent – half a million pounds.

    • “Tchaikovsky prize – 20k euros,
      Leeds piano competition, – first prize 18k pounds
      BBC young musician of the year, – 2k pounds.
      Academy Awards (Oscar) – zero.

      Britain’s got talent – half a million pounds.”

      Nice summary — can’t be laid out more plainly, I think! :)

  14. This competition looks as one of the many exploitation exercises eroding music life. Not only star singers and star conductors undermine the art form (as Norman has already exposed in his writings), and – so it seems here – competitions, but also conservatories who lower entrance standards to be able to get as many students’ college fees as possible. There exist even ‘impresarios’ whose business it is to promise to support and organize young performers’ career, against an attractive fee, and drop them after a year (in which it ‘has not been possible to realise a concert’ or ‘in the end, your talent did not meet the standers that…’) to find other victims. Cities like Paris and Vienna are filled to the brim with young performers, desperately looking for opportunities, so there is a nice pool of willing wallets to be reaped. Music life would be much better if young people would be given chances based upon merit and talent.

  15. Michaela says:

    I see on the website that there is still one jury position unannounced. I certainly hope that this position will be filled by a qualified woman as right now it looks like an boys’ club deciding.

    I seem to recall that the US journalist Anne Midgette served on the jury last year. I appreciated her participation, not only because she is a woman with strong opinions and knowledge in the area of conducting, but also because as a journalist, she shared her 1st hand experiences at the competition in writing.

    She opened the competition up to the world a bit, in much the same way Giergiev did when he decided to stream the Tchaikovsky Competition.

    I certainly hope to see Anne Midgette on the Besancon jury roster again this year. I believe that she was a superb choice.

  16. patrice-merville@wanadoo.f says:

    I do not understand this question.
    Look at the list of lauréates.
    Ask maestro Ozawa And others why they participed this festival.
    MrLebrecht should sometimes look fureter than his home

  17. Norman, let me compare the Besancon competition with the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition that the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra started in 2004 and puts on once every three years – the next edition is coming up this June. The first winner of the competition was Gustavo Dudamel and 2010′s winner, Ainars Rubikis is now Music Director of the Novosibirsk Opera and off on his way to a highly successful career.
    This competition charges applicants NOTHING. It received more than 400 applications for the current competition from over 60 countries. It does not spend any money on “pre-selections” in various parts of the world but rather chooses 12 finalists from DVD entries. The travel expenses and hotel expenses of all 12 finalists are paid for for the duration of the Competition, so that those eliminated in early rounds can still stay, listen, learn and receive encouragement and advice from the jury. This year’s jury is
    Jonathan Nott, principal conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
    Marina Mahler, honorary member of the jury and granddaughter of Gustav Mahler
    Markus Stenz, general music director of city of Cologne and Güzernich Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Hallé Orchestra and principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
    John Carewe, conductor
    Rolf Wallin, composer
    Louwrens Laangevoort, managing director of the Cologne Philharmonie concert hall
    Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival and composer
    Albert Schmitt, managing director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
    Christian Dibbern, violinist and member of the musicians’ board of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
    Wolfgang Fink, managing director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
    Prize Money is 20,000 Euros for first place, 10,000 Euros for second place and 5000 Euros for third and fourth place, respectively. Of course engagements with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra follow, as do performance opportunities through jury members (2010 winner Ainars Rubikis conducted at the Edinburgh International Festival, for example).
    I would encourage Besancon and other self-proclaiming premier competitions to reconsider what they spend their money on, whom they include in their juries (press versus composers and musician representatives) and how they can justify charging aspiring applicants 250 Euros (many of whom come from parts of the world in which 250 Euros is substantially more than an average monthly salary) to defray costs.

    • I’d like to add my own two cents to this discussion, as one of the 12 “finalist candidates” in the 2010 edition of the Bamberg competition, and having competed in the Besancon’s initial selection round several years ago (2006?).
      There is a HUGE distinction between the level of these two competitions: the Bamberg is truly one of the most serious and prestigious world-class competitions for young conductors today, while the Besancon prefers to rest on rather dusty laurels while employing a selection process which is financially wasteful for their operating budget (yes, international travel and hotel séjours sure are fun, but how about thoroughly examining DVD and complete candidate dossiers “sur place”?) and potentially prohibitive for candidates (I was lucky enough to be a train-ride away, but for others the expenses are simply out of the question).

      The best international competitions focus on the essential: attracting the best talents to participate, in all areas of expertise. This means erasing all financial worries for young competitors, inviting relevant and engaged jury members, providing professional artistic and administrative conditions, enticing significant media, agents, and executive directors, and awarding helpful and constructive prizes to its winners.

      • Well written, Elizabeth

      • Whilst I agree the 250 Euro fee is high, one thing I like about the competition is the lack of DVD entry. Even those of us studying on courses often don’t get as much podium time as we’d like, and this is often unrepresentative, as we work with 3rd rate orchestras who are sight-reading, and we don’t get even a moment to rehearse. Mounting your own concerts can be expensive or impossible (depending on where you are). DVDs are in many ways just as financially and logistically unfair as a high admission fee.

  18. Alexander Pope said it cogently: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

  19. Why do people buy lottery tickets? Same reason… you just might win and hit the jackpot.

  20. Angelo Gabrielli says:

    I’m afraid that it has become the standard practice to organize competitions only in order to get money (to have in the end a positive financial balance), not to be a useful platform to the candidates or even the winners.
    A serious competition should bring a singer or a conductor to perform an opera or a concert for an audience of experts, in order to be able to show both his/her musical talent as well as the ability to be part of an ensamble.

    Instead, only too often, the little amounts of money distributed by a competition will only serve to pay expensive teachers and coaches.

    I clearly recall the Philadelphia International Contest, that had selections done in various parts of the World, specifically in order to limit costs for the candidates, and without any cost of subscription. As a prize, the young winners, hosted by American families in Philadelphia, could make their debut alongside Luciano Pavarotti and study with maestros such as Tonini or Magiera (the same with whom Luciano Pavarotti studied and coached throughout his career).

    With conductors and orchestras the situation is more intricate. I give the example of Daniele Gatti, whom I know from a very young age. He had put together Strings Orchestra while still in the Music Academy a knew the maestro in his early twenties. He had signed a contract with a string Orchestra, with whom he had his first conducting experiences. Then he conducted Werther and Linda di Chamonix in the theaters of the AS.Li.Co circuit with the young winners of the As.Li.Co. Contest. Long rehearsals with the Pomeriggi Musicali Orchestra and with the young singers allowed for a debut with already solid foundations. At the Teatro Regio in Turin the Artistic Director had rehearsal behind closed doors in order to put to the test interesting young conductors and this practice then spilled to other opera companies in Italy. These opportunities are no longer available.

    In Italy, there would be a prime context for those who aspire to a professional career in music: the two year specialization courses proposed by the conservatories, the Universities of Music. They should be collecting the best students, not only in Italy but throughout the world, with renowned teachers, in every discipline to impart of their knowledge. These institutions, adequately funded, should concentrate, in the two years of permanence of these young musicians, on giving them the opportunity for frequent exhibitions in concert, chamber music and possibly opera, perhaps in collaboration with a near by musical institution. Only in Emilia Romagna there are nine such courses, but the fact is that there is very little opportunity for any exhibition in front of a public, especially for conductors, not to speak of a real operatic performance.
    Thus we find ourselves with 200/300 conductors who have spent money and time only refining the technique that could hopefully make them win one of those competitions mentioned, not having any other possibilities to breakthrough the (very low) glass ceiling. Others look for those orchestras which, for the right amount of money, would give anyone a chance to conduct a piece the orchestra already knows but that gives nothing to a young conductor. This is the harsh reality we are facing…

    We should demand transparency from these merchants (the only word to use we those who speculate with these young musicians) and look to go back to real patronage.

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