Conducting competitions in Poland and worldwide

“The conductor is an artist who gets to know everything. More than his musician subordinates. More than… the composer himself,” Leon Markiewicz used to say. 

It is said that conducting competitions are the most unfair form of musical rivalry. Some claim conducting contests are more of a lottery or a “beauty pageant,” where genuine artistry manifests itself solely by chance. This is allegedly due to the highly intangible assessment criteria. Whenever required to objectively evaluate an instrumentalist or a singer, one may refer to clear intonation, timbre, technical abilities, precise performance. Factors such as interpretation, sense of phrase, dramatic structure, are somewhat more debatable but still tangible… Even with composing competitions, one submits a score: an objective being with a basis for its comprehensive assessment, including its interpretative potential.  

On the other hand, what do conductors have at their disposal? Their own hand – trained to a greater or lesser extent – in which they hold their baton. Above all, they have an orchestra to direct: an ensemble of several dozen, each of whom reacts in a different manner, has a different sensitivity, a different range of experience, moods, and disposition towards the conductor. Herein lies the problem – while the performer-musician or composer assumes responsibility for their own effort, conductors enrolling in a competition depend on a number of unpredictable factors.

Despite these discouraging circumstances, conducting competitions have enjoyed continued popularity. Considered as the most spectacular music contests, conducting competitions add to the prestige of contestants and organizers alike, acting as trampolines to glittering careers and promoting artistic personalities who shape musical milieus. If the conductor is indeed an all-knowing artist, then conducting competitions must be the most demanding type of rivalry…

The whole mystery – likely impossible to unravel – reveals itself only during competition auditions, when the same orchestra performs the same piece for the sixth or seventh time, yet it sounds completely different depending on the candidate at the rostrum. It seems as if the musicians and the conductor have met before and worked on their interpretation before. But it is not so. Therefore, something truly uncanny takes place – without preparation, often without a single word, for the duration of a dozen-or-so minutes the ensemble reacts spontaneously and lets (or refuses to let) itself be carried away by the personality of the contestant.

Indeed, what is evaluated in conducting competitions is a far wider list of criteria than in any instrumental or vocal contests. Conducting competitions are the sole type of musical rivalry where auditions do not assume the form of recitals or concerts, but rather resemble open rehearsals. It is precisely through the observation of their work with a piece that conductors open the door to their methodologies and put their craft fully on display. Thus, manual skills, precise gestures, technical exactness, pulsation, knowledge of the score, are all evident assessment criteria. Another factor is the way in which the conductor works with the orchestra, including the selection of remarks and their transmission, the ability to quickly emphasise one’s own performing vision with reference to that suggested by the orchestra. Directions given to musicians should be precise and to the point but never brusque; polite but not infantile; inspiring but not bigheaded – they are supposed to elucidate the conductor’s intensions rather than obscure them. The orchestra prefers playing to listening to lectures; therefore it is all about transmitting the message within a handful of words that will make the orchestra want to play better.

The above description suggests that a good conductor is one with whom musicians want to spend time in a creative and inspiring manner, one with an interesting personality and a rich inner life. When evaluating champions of the batons, we thus operate within the sphere of impressions, albeit firmly anchored in the empirical.

The relative scarceness of conducting competitions results from the simple fact that they are the most expensive among all musical contests. Their budgets are several times as high as those of their piano or violin counterparts, as the orchestra is required from the very first stage rather than solely in the finals. Several dozen top-notch instrumentalists are usually worked on a daily basis. If one were to compare the effort entailed in one competition to the mode of work involved in scheduled subscription concerts, it would turn out the orchestra meets their several month’s target within a few days.

Conducting competitions worldwide

The impression is, therefore, that there are not many conducting competitions around the world. Aside from the aforementioned financial difficulties, such events are complex both at the level of planning and, more broadly, organization-wise. The history of “baton tournaments” is relatively short. The competition commonly recognized as the oldest of its kind is the International Competition for Young Conductors held in Besançon, France, since 1951. The Nicolai Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen is fourteen years its junior. The history of conducting contests also includes several high-ranking events that went down in history, including the Herbert von Karajan Competition in Berlin (which trampolined the careers of Jacek Kaspszyk or Antoni Wit) or the Kirill Kondrashin Competition in Amsterdam. In the past three decades, the number of competitions for symphony orchestra conductors has risen noticeably. As of now, there are almost 40 such contests worldwide. Still, the number seems less than unassuming when juxtaposed with almost six hundred competitions dedicated to pianists or violinists.

Against all appearances, it is quite easy to rank the level of a given competition. One should only consider such elements as (1) the application/participation fee, (2) the prize pool offered in the competition, (3) and the number of potential concerts offered outside of the statutory prizes. Also considered should be the jurors, their renown and body of work, as well as the multiplicity and diversity of extra prizes in general (they are all a testament to the degree of interest in the competition in conducting milieus). One should also keep in mind the fact that musical competitions are non-profit events. If they indeed aspire to play the assumed, cultural role in the musical world, and ensure the highest level of artistic performance, they should be generously sponsored by private patrons or state institutions.

One type of such a guarantee is the affiliation with the World Federation of International Music Competitions in Geneva. All competitions associated within this organization must meet several conditions, such as the lack of restrictions for participants based on their nationality, the presence of an international jury, striving for the highest possible artistic level through an adequate selection of the repertoire. The exclusive group of member competitions associated within the WFIMC features only a handful of conducting contests, including the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition in Parma,1 the International Competition for Young Conductors in Besançon2, the Grzegorz Fitelberg International Conducting Competition in Katowice3 (referred to below), and the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conductors4. Moreover, the prestigious list includes several open (or “challenge-based”) competitions, which rotate their specialties depending on subsequent editions, such as the Georg Solti International Music Competition in Budapest or the Princess Astrid International Music Competition in Trondheim5.

Expanding this list of competitions (admittedly a very short one) to include other contests that meet the aforementioned criteria, one cannot fail to acknowledge such events as the Nicolai Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen6, the Cadaqués Orchestra International Conducting Competition7, the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg8, the Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in Frankfurt/Main9, the Evgeni Svetlanov Conducting Competition in Paris, and the Donatella Glick Competition in London. Also noticeable, although undoubtedly of lesser stature, are such contests as the Lovro Matačić International Competition for Young Conductors in Zagreb and the Jorma Panula Conducting Competition in Vaasa, Finland10.

Consecutive editions of major conducting contests are held every 4-5 years. The competitions with the shortest (2-year) intervals include contests in Cadaqués, Besançon, Frankfurt, and London. The last case also posits different programmatic goals when compared with the majority of conducting competitions, since the Donatella Flick Competition aims to find the assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. Given the unquestionable rank of the LSO among the world’s top symphony orchestras, the British philanthropist Donatella Flick made sure that the event has a special stature by establishing a prize of GBP 12,000 for the winner of the competition. 

Competition regulations often impose age limits on participants. Candidates are usually expected to be under 35 years of age. Since conductors reach their artistic maturity slightly later than other musicians, the above age limit is rarely lowered – if anything it tends to be shifted “upwards”. One may enrol in the Cadaqués competition before turning 36; the Tokyo competition allows contestants up to 38 years of age; the Panula competition in Vaasa and the Svetlanov competition in Paris each allow candidates younger than 40. 

Naturally, the cream of any other music competitions are routinely preceded with preselections, which usually assume the form of live auditions at set dates and venues or a review of submitted recordings that meet specific requirements. Due to the technical limitations entailed in conducting competitions and the constrained capacity of orchestras that accompany candidates during competition auditions, the number of contestants admitted to first stages of conducting competitions tends to be narrow, regardless of the prestige of a given contest. Pre-selection stages are mostly based on the evaluation of submitted recordings.

Participating in first stages of conducting competitions are usually select groups of contestants, from 12 (Toscanini), through 20 (D. Flick, Besançon), up to 24 (Malko). These numbers are rarely exceeded. Thus, the very admission to a conducting competition is an achievement of sorts. There are plenty candidates eager to take on the challenge, with as many as 200 applications submitted for pre-selections stages. As per the Malko Competition website, the upcoming edition has attracted a record number of 566 submissions11.

Organization-wise, conducting competitions are based on a repeated pattern of development, which involves three to four stages that conclude with a selection of those who qualified to the next round. Auditions programmes usually span a dozen-or-so works representing various genres (symphonies, overtures, concerts) and epochs, from classicism to modernity. Before taking to the stage (in most cases for the duration of several to several dozen minutes), the participant draws a piece to work with. Each stage includes a separate pool of compositions (e.g. 19th-century symphonies, solo concerts, symphonic poems, overtures). Oftentimes, conducting competitions are a chance to promote the culture of the host country and feature compositions by various local composers, including those written especially for a given competition. In order to raise the bar, newly composed pieces are rendered available shortly before the competition, sometimes as late as upon participants’ arrival. Thus, conductors must quickly internalize a given work, thus displaying their ability to work efficiently under pressure.

The jury is as inseparable from any competition as those who participate in the contest. In some competitions, the presence of the orchestra throughout the proceedings is also utilized, as it is the case in the Cadaqués competition, where the orchestra musicians also act as jurors, to the extent that their vote has the weight of two jury votes. Another detail to be considered is the somewhat obscured stance of conducting participants, who are mostly seen from behind. How is the jury supposed to credibly assess a participant who remains barely visible to them? In some competitions, the problem has been solved by seating the jury opposite the candidate, i.e. amidst the musicians or at the balcony overlooking the stage. Sometimes, however, the venue does not enable such solutions. Besides, conducting a rehearsal – an indispensible component of any competition audition – requires completely different levels of concentration than a concert. The sight of the jury can be very stressful. Nowadays, the problem is often resolved by placing a camera that records the conductor from up front and transmits the image in real time onto a nearby screen. The remarks voiced by the contestant are also transmitted through a microphone/microport attached discretely on the rostrum.

Financial prizes at the most prestigious conducting competitions range from EUR 12,000 to EUR 25,000 (1st prize/Grand Prix). Still, it is not money that is of paramount importance in such contests, however big the prize. Aside from the statutory prizes, laureates are also awarded concerts with top-notch orchestras. This is the true object of desire to all conductors, as it enables them to put their foot in the door of the music world. Household competitions offer a pool of 20-30 invitations to perform with philharmonic or opera orchestras throughout the subsequent 2-3 artistic seasons. The disproportion between the winner and the runners-up (or those awarded honourable mentions) is noticeable, with the competitions in Besançon and Cadaqués leading the charge. Along the lines of “winner takes all,” these tournaments are the most attractive in terms of the number and stature of the awarded concerts. Still, the runner-up (if selected) must settle for the titular prize, as they are not awarded even a single concert outside of the statutory prize.

More and more often, laureates of the most prestigious competitions are offered guidance from a personal mentor (brand maker), whose task is to direct their budding career and create the artistic and media image of the winner. Such support is offered by the competitions in Besançon or Copenhagen. Likewise important to the rank of a given competition is the presence of scouts from the world’s leading artistic agencies. In some cases, there are so many of them that one may have an impression that the actual competition is resolved behind the scenes rather than at the jury table. In many cases, agents spotted personalities overlooked by the jury that stuck to the rigid scoring rules. Perhaps it is the chance to be noticed – not so much by the jury but by an impresario – is imperative in prompting candidates to submit their bids for top conducting competitions.

Conducting competitions in Poland

Looking at the map of music competitions in Poland, symphonic conducting appears to be the least represented artistic specialty. Those willing to enrol in a conducting contest in Poland may choose from as few as three events: one international competition, one nationwide contest, and one student tournament. Although unassuming, these events extend through each segment of Polish musical culture.

Of the three, the Adam Kopyciński Competition for Student Conductors is the youngest venture (so far, there have been two editions of the contest, held respectively in 2013 and 2017), but to an extent also the most important one. Initiated by Marek Pijarowski and hosted by the Academy of Music in Wrocław, the contest is the first showcase for emerging conductors. The competition’s namesake was the doyen of the Wrocław school of conducting, whose musical “offspring” (“children,” “grandchildren,” or “great-grandchildren”) include Tadeusz Strugała, Marek Pijarowski, Mieczysław Gawroński, Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, Michał Nesterowicz, Marzena Diakun, and Wojciech Rodek, among others.

In each of the three stages, contestants must face a challenging repertoire performed by the ensembles of the Academy of Music in Wrocław. In the first stage, participants are accompanied by the chamber orchestra, while in the second and third stage they work with the symphony orchestra. Drawing from the most excruciating conducting competitions, participants are required to face a new piece, composed by a student of the Wrocław alma mater, selected in an in-house composing contest. Also featured are various works from the Polish concert repertoire. Formally, applicants must be students of symphonic (or symphonic and opera) conducting at a Polish academy of music. A total of 24 participants are admitted to the competition based on the evaluation of submitted recordings.

The majority of the jury include employees of symphonic conducting at Polish academies of music. This is precisely where the idea of the A. Kopyciński Competition is fully realized, as it involves a rivalry of students supervised by pedagogues and encourages an exchange of experience and ideas on the condition of Polish conducting, education of young conductors in Poland, diagnoses of possible problems, weaknesses of the system and ways to address them.  

It is still too early to scrutinize the careers of the Kopyciński Competition laureates and draw any decisive conclusions. Still, one may already argue that the quality of education is high, as manifested by the participants admitted to the auditions. It seems, then, that the need for a conducting competition for students is self-evident.

The traditions of the Witold Lutosławski Conducting Competition in Białystok may not be as impressive as those of the Fitelberg Competition, yet they are quite sumptuous in their own right. Initiated in the early 1990s by Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk, the-then director of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic and an alumnus of Karol Stryja, the founder of the G. Fitelberg Competition. Back in the conception stage, Stryja was not fully behind his protégé’s idea. He feared that another conducting competition in Poland may dilute the potential of his own contest in Katowice. Still, what persuaded him to back the initiative was the establishment of the Lutosławski Competition as a “herald” of the Fitelberg Competition, which takes place a year after its younger offspring. Thus, one of the prizes involved in the Lutosławski Competition has been the automatic qualification of the winner for the Fitelberg Competition held in the subsequent year. In the past edition of the Lutosławski Competition, the invitation was also extended to the winners of the 2nd and 3rd prize.

Over the six editions of the competition, the contest was changing its formula from a nationwide event (1994, 1998, 2002) to an international competition (2006, 2011), returning to an all-Polish formula in 2016. According to Paweł Kotla, considering the vastly improved standards in educating conductors in Poland (in particular the educational facilities available), the reinstatement of the national formula will not diminish the artistic level of the contest12.

In the course of the pre-selection for the two-stage competition, the jury selects 24 young contestants, who are then required to prepare scores of eight works. Although seemingly modest, the number is actually sumptuous given the fact that the assigned repertoire would fill the bills of at least four concerts. Moreover, candidates are expected to conduct a piece by the patron of the competition, Witold Lutosławski. Another distinctive feature with regard to the auditions repertoire is the partial similarity to the programme of the Fitelberg Competition. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, the overlap included three overtures, five symphonies and one concert. The competition also stresses the inclusion of compositions by Polish composers, in particular those less familiar to wide audiences. Outside of the aforementioned composition by Lutosławski, the last edition of the competition included Karol Szymanowski’s Violin concerto no. 2 and Mieczysław Karłowicz’s “Rebirth” Symphony. Thus, participants are encouraged to take on Polish repertoire, which tends to be sidetracked in many music curricula. Karłowicz’s symphony may serve as a case in point. 

The second stage (or de facto the final stage of the competition) features eight contestants, among whom six are honoured with prizes and honourable mentions. Throughout the duration of the competition, participants conduct the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Białystok.

The competition was a springboard for such Polish conductors as Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, Tomasz Chmiel, Szymon Bywalec, Tomasz Tokarczyk, Wojciech Rodek, Przemysław Neumann, and most recently Maciej Koczur.

The Grzegorz Fitelberg International Conducting Competition ranks among the elite conducting competitions in the world. It is also one of the most challenging in terms of its repertoire (each contestant is required to master 12 scores).

The history of the competition dates back to 1970, when assistant professor Karol Stryja, who was the director of the State Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice and a protégé of the great Grzegorz Fitelberg, established a competition for young Polish composers. Thanks to a significant support and involvement from the Ministry of Culture and Art, young conductors received an unprecedented chance to confront their skills. The first two editions, held in 1970 and 1974, manifested a considerable quality of performance from the contestant, as stressed by the president of the jury, Kazimierz Wiłkomirski. The competitions trampolined the careers of several Polish conductor, including Agnieszka Duczmal, Zygmunt Rychert (1st edition) or Marek Pijarowski, Jerzy Salwarowski, and Wojciech Michniewski (2nd edition). According to the press, which amply reported on the competition, the high level of auditions induced the organizers to transform the contest into an international event. 

1979 marked the first international edition of the Fitelberg Competition. It was from then on that the contest began to elevate its global renown. There are plenty distinguishing factors in the Fitelberg Competitoin, from the large number of candidates admitted to the main competition (as many as 50 in the last edition), as well as the diverse rules of awarding non-statutory prizes. The Fitelberg Competition does not heed the “winner takes all” principle. Its vast prize pool includes awards for the best Polish conductor, the best European laureate, the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra’s favourite (regardless of their performance in the competition), the best Polish conductor not to reach the final, etc. 13. Such a comprehensive catalogue virtually prohibits the jury from awarding all extracurricular prizes to a single contestant. 

Interestingly, in terms of financial prizes, the Fitelberg Competition is the most generous event of its kind worldwide. Nowhere in the world can the winning conductor reap more than EUR 25,000. In Katowice, even the honourable mentions (EUR 5,000-10,000) exceed many 2nd and 3rd prizes in other competitions. 

Each contestant has a chance to be noticed during the competition – an observation that may seem a cliché, but in comparison with other conducting tournaments, e.g. the Cadaqués Competitoin (held a month after the most recent edition of the Fitelberg Competition, i.e. in December 2017), one would struggle to find the list of participants on the competition website. Who took part in the auditions, when were they held, and what was the result? One may only guess (!). On the other hand, a large portion of the page was devoted to the competition jury and their ample bios… In this case, the Fitelberg Competition has the upper hand, as it dedicates as separate bookmark to every contestant, along with their photograph, a CV compiled using the same template – NB a brilliant idea that makes the resumes easily accessible and legible, enabling one to compare the body of work of every participant – and, last but not least, the repertoire selected for the auditions.

New technologies have been part and parcel of the Fitelberg Competition for several editions. Auditions in the 2012 and 2017 editions were broadcast via the competition’s YouTube channel; enabling online audiences to follow the competition live (with only a slight delay). With the number of online viewers as high as 300, the streaming has been a considerable success. In comparison, the Malko Competition, whose latest edition took place in the spring of 2018, had announced that the said edition would be the first ever in the history of the contest to enable the live streaming option. Another novelty is a mobile application developed in collaboration with the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute, which enables one to follow all competition news on mobile devices, from auditions, through critical commentaries, competition newspaper, and jury verdicts.

While in the Lutosławski Competition in Białystok the works of Polish composers are included in the repertoire optionally, the G. Fitelberg Competition stipulates that every contestant interprets at least one piece by a Polish composer. Out of 24 compositions in the competition repertoire, as many as 9 were written by Polish composers. The last edition featured works by S. Moniuszko, M. Karłowicz, W. Lutosławski, H. M. Górecki and K. Penderecki.

The competition studio, which hosted a number of musical personas, demonstrated the extensive range of the contest. The list of collaborators also included the Polish Music Publishing House, which rendered available the competition repertoire and provided the scores for performers14., and the Institute of Music and Dance, which co-financed the two previous editions of the competition (2012 and 2017). The support from the Polish Music Publishing House and the Institute of Music and Dance, as well as a number of other institutions behind the competition, is a testament to its prestigious status.

The competition also has a cultural significance, as it engages a number of milieus without direct links to music or arts in general. On the occasion of the competition, the students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice competed for the best Fitelberg Competition poster. The last edition was accompanied by the exhibition of photographs and fine arts. Other initiatives include a “casting” for the best shop window exhibition related to the Competition, a conducting-themed location-based game, as well as batons for laureates crafted by a top Polish jeweller. All of these projects suggest that the event is not confined to a narrow circle and a single venue. Another fantastic tradition is the presence of a young jury comprised of the students of the Karol Szymanowski Music School in Katowice, which awards a special prize independent from the verdict of the main jury.

One should also mention a remark made by a person directly tied to the competition, who stressed the beneficial atmosphere pervading the entire event. Michael Zilm (juror in the last editions and winner of the 1983 competition) notices that the positive aura is the result of meetings such as the ones held when the results of consecutive stages are announced. Many competitions make do with posting the list of the qualified on a bulletin board. Here, names are read out publically, accompanied by rounds of applause and congratulations, yielding a completely different setting.

The fact that the competition is held in Poland, however, does not mean Polish contestants are favoured in any way. So far, the international editions of the competitions have yielded no Polish winner. What is more, four ( V, VII, VIII, and X) out of ten editions produced no “Polish” honourable mentions. The highest-ranking Polish conductors in the G. Fitelberg Competition to-date were Marzena Diakun, winner of the 2nd prize in the 9th edition (2012) and Tadeusz Wojciechowski, who was awarded the 3rd prize in the 1st edition of the competition (1979). On the other hand, Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk (1991), Zbigniew Graca (1983), Jerzy Kosek (1987), Maja Metelska (2012) and Michał Nesterowicz (1999) were among those awarded honourable mentions15.

The 10th edition of the competition was preceded by a cycle of accompanying events (mainly concerts) themed Before the Great Competition. Indeed, one could argue without exaggeration that the competition ranks among the great contests par excellence. Not only thanks to its international character but also because of its abundant, varied setting, the use of latest technologies, as well as a plethora of what can be provisionally referred to as symbolical appreciation of participants at every step of the way. 

As of late, the most extensive conceptual, artistic, and organizational work behind all three Polish competitions has been created by two professors of conducting, Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk and Marek Pijarowski. They serve as members (or presidents) of the juries in all three conducting contests in Poland. By acting as artistic directors of these competitions, they exert the biggest influence on the competition repertoires, rules and regulations, as well as the entire entourage of the contests. Above all, however, apart from being consummate conductors, the two have an extensive experience as pedagogues to whom the assessment of young conductors is part and parcel of their daily work. 

When tracking the careers of competition laureates, one may notice that – as has often been pointed out by jurors – they do not automatically become into great maestri; in fact, some of them never reach the status. History shows us that it is up to conductors themselves to direct their careers. Competitions do, indeed, trampoline them to artistic greatness, and result in numerous invitations from different philharmonics, orchestras, and operas to conduct single concerts. The true challenge, however, is to conduct a concert that will be memorable enough to result in a repeat invitation in a few years’ time.

Miłosz Kula

1, date of access: 5 December 2017
2, date of access: 5 December 2017
3, date of access: 2 December 2017
4, date of access: 20 December 2017
5, date of access: 22.10.2017
6, date of access: 4.11.2017
7, date of access: 20 December 2017
8, date of access: 20 December 2017
9, date of access: 21 December 2017
10, date of access: 20 December 2017
11, date of access: 29 October 2017
12 Press conference | 6th Nationwide Competition for Young Conductors | OiFP,, date of access: 20 December 2017
13 “Batuta” [the official newspapaer of the 10th Grzegorz Fitelberg International Competition for Conductors], no. 5 (25 November 2017), p.10.
14 Grzegorz Fitelberg International Competition for Conductors STUDIO KONKURSOWE,, date of access: 20 December 2017
15, date of access: 10 November 2017

Jan Stanisław WItkiewicz's collection photo: Waldemar Kielichowski © Institute of Music and Dance, Warsaw