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To preface this article, there are no pieces of music that have personally confounded me quite like Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29. (Bear with me, I do get to my experience of the competition itself eventually..) This was possibly the most complicated piece I’ve ever had to learn – at least Stockhausen’s Donnerstag Aus Licht has other instructions that tie in seamlessly with the music.

The Suite, Op. 29 is a fascinating work that is based on a bi-dimensional 12-tone chart, meaning that there are a series of twelve twelve-tone rows across twelve staves, both facing vertically and horizontally. On one side we find the original rows, however when the chart is flipped 90º anticlockwise the same 12-tone rows appear but in their inverse-retrograde forms. While this is a completely genius concept, I tried my best to get my head around it and to this day I saw absolutely zero overlap between the chart and the musical material in the piece. The only connection I could concretely make was that there was a note that constantly moved its way diagonally through the 12 systems in the chart: E flat; which always was present in the starts, key transitions and ends of movements. Even the theme and variations, which had a “melody” (itself moving in a palindromic fashion between phrases) in E major, E flat was the staple harmonic note creating a sense of constant dissonance throughout. In my eyes, this became one of the most f***-off pieces of music in existence: in the way that its core construct and inclusion of tonal glimpses hint towards his love of French baroque music (highly elegant and characterful), but with a completely atonal and highly academically self rule-breaking appearance.

I absolutely love this piece, BUT it has well and truly got under my skin and may well lead to my inevitable mental breakdown if I do it again in the future.

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In March 2023, I was so happy to be named the second prizewinner of the Giancarlo Facchinetti competition, in Brescia, Italy. As this was my first competition in 5 years, I wanted to choose something smaller to experience the intense process and it turned out to be quite the experience; one which I’m glad ended so positively and in any case I won’t forget for a number of reasons.

There was a different kind of intensity and pressure compared to any competition or masterclass I’d done in the past. In the time leading up to this competition I was also a reserve for the Donatella Flick Competition with the LSO, so studied that repertoire anyway in case I got the call (in the end no one dropped out). But the pressure with an event like that is that one wants to make a good and lasting impression on a top orchestra, performing well-known and loved repertoire that’s absolutely up their alley.

I’m not saying the following to show off, rather I just want to make the point that re-visiting repertoire that’s already in my system isn’t as much a challenge as learning something new: for example I’ve done Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique 3-4 times, Mozart 40 at least 3 times, the prelude from Tristan und Isolde at least 3 times, and the list goes on. Only a couple of pieces on their list would have been completely new or would have caused any level of panic.

The Facchinetti competition however, was completely the opposite and a whole lot more stressful in my eyes: the only work I knew from before was Copland’s Appalachian Spring, one of my all-time favourites, however everything else was not only new, but some pieces were very, very complicated. It’s completely unheard of that a competition would include such a diverse repertoire list, ranging from Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, to spectral music by Tristan Murail (which came with no fixed measures, a conductor’s absolute nightmare technically), modern works by Facchinetti and Jan-Peter de Graaf, a world première by Paola Magnanini, and the work which had me pulling my hair out for weeks: Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29.

The main pressure here is not only do I want to make a good impression on the ensemble, but every round included something I’d never done before and maybe will never do again. So if I didn’t get through the first round, it would initially feel like many hours of studying would have been for nothing.

Aside from the preparation aspect, the other element I didn’t foresee was that two days before I left for Italy my wife and I found out that she was pregnant with twins. So not only did I have to change all my plans for the Zemlinsky Chamber Orchestra that same week, but I was emotionally all over the place: I had a simultaneous feeling of ecstatic happiness, total fear but a new drive and motivation that everything I do from here has to be done diligently, because everything I do professionally is for them, as well as me. I was suddenly working for something bigger than my own pride, and given how high my energy levels can get, this could go in any direction.

While I was there, I made sure that I was sociable, made as many friends/connections as possible and wanted to embrace the experience to its fullest, however (and as cliché as it sounds) I didn’t want to approach this as a competition. I feel like I work most comfortably in a professional surrounding, so I immediately made that decision to create that mindset that I was walking into a rehearsal that was pre-planned: I’d go in, do my warm-ups, have a quick look through the score, and any conversations I had with anyone backstage would be brief and in a positive manner (kept to a level that my focus would stay intact). The one sadness (maybe regret) from that week was that I chose not to listen to anyone else’s audition. There were so many talented conductors involved, however if I did see more people doing the same repertoire as me, I’d realise again that it’s a competition and my focus would shift negatively.

The first round wasn’t a disaster, but the “twins” emotions suddenly hit me when I didn’t need it and I felt at times like I was all over the place. Exactly not what I needed when working with an orchestra where not everyone speaks English (and my “Duolingo Italian” would only go so far..), a situation where a level head and a few seconds of time is absolutely necessary. Coming off from the podium, I wasn’t feeling a sense of ecstasy that one finds after a good time on the rostrum, but as noting went particularly wrong (especially for Appalachian Spring, everyone who needed help got it – there are tricks that stick) I wasn’t annoyed at myself either – it was a bit of a blur and I decided that I was so emotional that if it all went south, the week was a write-off and I’d simply move forward with no regrets anyway. Shockingly though, it turned out to be a success and I’d done the hardest part of any competition.

The second round was my favourite, not only did I feel a new sense of ease, but the music was a lovely fit: despite the fact I had no idea how to approach it, the music of the Murail grew on me and I loved the challenge of finding a new system to lead music (which involved heavy use of Sigmund Thorp’s Anatomical Exercises – a book that I never use enough but is absolute gospel for mastering technical solutions). This was also my first time conducting any music by Jan-Peter de Graaf and his Pascal certainly didn’t disappoint! It’s a turbulent and mesmerising piece that has everything that one could ask for, but it remains a compact musical adventure. (Plus, finding more music by Dutch composers was pretty high on my list of things to do, so Jan-Peter’s a good friend and colleague to have.) Coming off the stage, finally I felt like a round where everything went right and I was in my zone. Finding the result filled me with a sense of comfort that not only was my instinct about the rehearsal feeling correct, but no studying went to waste.

The last round was a crazy day. We were given an hour each to rehearse the overture to Paola Magnanini’s newly written children’s opera (a story about werewolves), Facchinetti’s Divertimento No. 2 (a short, 12-tone piece that had a surprisingly nice musical flow) and a movement from the aforementioned Schoenberg Suite – we drew lots the night before, I ended up getting the second movement). (My feelings should be clear at this point.)

Anyway, the rehearsal was what it was. Nowhere near the feeling of the night before, but more collected than the first round. Putting together a viciously difficult movement of Schoenberg (Tanzschritte) in 40 minutes wasn’t my favourite musical experience and I came to the conclusion that however the concert went later that day, that is how it is: I got there, I achieved everything I wanted and I’d go home with my head held high, whatever the outcome.

The concert was hugely enjoyable, the first two works were an absolute joy to perform and the Schoenberg, after falling apart at the introduction (thank God for the general pause after 7 or so measures) found its way home with dignity intact. All I could do was walk off stage with my head held high: there wasn’t anything to lose and I felt I did myself proud for the occasion.

I was absolutely honoured to win the second prize, which included a re-invitation to conduct the Deadly Ensemble in 2024. For the record I do want to congratulate fellow finalists Joonas Pitkänen and Nataliia Stets, who are fantastic and were worthy winners. It also felt wonderful that the family members of the late Giancarlo Facchinetti’s approached me afterwards to comment on how much they enjoy my interpretation of his music.

To conclude, I took many things from this experience. Firstly (and most importantly), I learned how not to change myself for the sake of making a good impression. It wasn’t a perfect week, but at all times I was honest to myself – I knew exactly what I needed in order to be working at my best and did my best to cater to that. I was also aware that neither throwing myself in too deep nor separating myself entirely from the experience wasn’t the way to go.

Secondly, I learned is that there is an art to succeeding in a competition, which is COMPLETELY different to the way that one should approach normal professional work. In a competition the focus is mainly on that short session itself, rather on how that rehearsal builds to a concert, and because of the time constraints one needs to shine immediately as in a performance, while showcasing glimpses of a glowing rehearsal personality. LET THEM PLAY: show enough of ones best self to inspire and do not talk too much or nit pick, it saves a conductor a lot of effort and puts more trust in the musicians (which they appreciate). How this works for each individual conductor is different, and sometimes it takes a little trial and error.

Thirdly, on a personal note, I knew how it felt to have my mojo in my primary profession. Since lockdown I’d been working a number of jobs in different capacities, and although I would never complain about any of it, I had been missing slightly the joy of properly studying and geeking out over a new score that I’d get to conduct. In case the last couple of paragraphs give a more calculated impression on how I work in these instances, this is rarely the case. I’m a professional working in a highly emotional setting: I’ve just used this experience to consolidate my knowledge on what works for me in competition, while learning some lessons about performance craft and how to prepare myself mentally for either situation. I wouldn’t do this particular competition again – there’s no need, I got what I wanted and maybe I’ll do a bigger one in the future. (If that’s the case and this all turns out to be irrelevant I’ll be the first to admit it.)

I do want to thank everyone involved: the organisers and patrons; the conductors, who were wonderful (and who I wish all the best in their careers); Jan-Peter and Paola, whose music I’d love to perform again some day; the jury who elected to take me as far as I did; and the Dedalo Ensemble, who I look forward to conducting again soon.