Florent Schmitt and the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors

The elderly composer chaired the jury at the Besançon’s first competition in 1951.

Bensancon Music Festival Poster 2019

A large wall poster advertising the 2019 Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors.

These days there’s certainly no dearth of international competitions for young and emerging conductors.  No fewer than 30 such events are open to contenders from all over the world. 

Add in a number of similar competitions that are national rather than international in scope, and it’s quite an extensive list.

Interestingly, the copious quantity of competitions is a fairly recent development.  By my rough count, approximately 40% of the international conductor competitions were established in 2010 or more recently.  By contrast, the number of competitions that existed before 1980 is much fewer – just five.

Some of the competitions are named after important musical personages of the past – luminaries such as orchestra directors Arthur Nikisch, Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini, Guido Cantelli, Jesús López-Cobos, Antal Doráti, Sir Georg Solti, Lovro von Matačić, Grzegorz Fitelberg, Yevgeny Svetlanov and Nikolai Malko

Other competitions carry the names of composers like Béla Bartók, Aram Khachaturian and Gustav Mahler

A few of them date back 40 years or longer — such as the Cantelli Conducting Competition (established in 1961), the Malko Competition for Young Conductors (begun in 1965) and the Fitelberg International Competition for Conductors (first held in 1979).

But the granddaddy of them all has to be the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors, which dates all the way back to 1951.  In the seven decades since, winning or placing in the Besançon Competition has launched many a career for conductors to make their mark in international concertizing and recording. 

Among the most notable first-prize winners of the Besançon Competition are the following maestros:

Besancon International Festival of Music logoThe Besançon story actually begins in 1948, several years before the inaugural conducting competition was established.  That’s when the Besançon Franche-Comté International Music Festival was organized by a committee of renowned musicians headed by French conductor Gaston Poulet, the Festival’s first artistic director.  (Poulet was then serving as the chief conductor of the Concerts Colonne Orchestra in Paris.)

Besancon Music Festival Program 1949

A vintage copy of the program for the 1949 Festival International de Musique de Besançon Franche-Comté — the second annual event.

Since 1948, the Besançon Music Festival has taken place yearly every September – a unbroken string of annual events until 2020’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Besançon is arguably one of the top three annual music festivals held in France – the other two being La Chaise-Dieu and the St-Denis.  While the Besançon Festival encompasses nearly all forms of classical music including solo recitals and chamber music concerts, it is best-known for its orchestral presentations, which have been led over by some of the world’s most famous conductors such as Rafael Kubelik, Igor Markevitch, Carl Schuricht, Wilhelm Furtwängler, André Cluytens, Lorin Maazel and Charles Dutoit, among others.

Emile Vuillermoz

Émile-Jean-Joseph Vuillermoz (1878-1960)

Against this backdrop, the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors was established in 1951 on the initiative of the French music scholar and critic Émile Vuillermoz.  Originally an annual competition with two categories of participation – amateur and professional conductors – the “pro/am” distinction was dropped in 1974.  Since 1992 the competition has taken place every two years.

For the very first Besançon competition held in 1951, the jury empaneled to adjudicate the candidates’ performances was chaired by the French composer Florent Schmitt

The selection of Schmitt to chair the jury was a logical one.  By then over 80 years of age, Schmitt was the undisputed doyen of French composers.  (Only Gustave Charpentier, at age 91, was older than Schmitt, but Charpentier hadn’t been active as a composer for more than three decades.) 

Florent Schmitt 1953 photo

Florent Schmitt seated at the doorway to his study at his home in St-Cloud, France. This photograph was taken around the time Schmitt served as the jury chairperson at the first Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors (1951). (Photo: ©1953 Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

Composers Conduct Schmitt Roussel Ravel Elgar UraniaMoreover, Schmitt was an accomplished conductor himself, having led numerous concerts of his music in France and elsewhere over the years.  Schmitt’s most recent international conducting engagements had been in Brazil in 1949, where he was invited by Heitor Villa-Lobos to lead his Psaume XLVII plus several other of his own compositions with ensembles in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Jean Giardino conductor

Jean Giardino (1906-1983)

[As an interesting aside, Psaume XLVII was presented on one of the programs of the accompanying Besançon Music Festival — a performance that featured the Chanteurs Comtois and orchestral forces under the direction of Jean Giardino. Reportedly, Schmitt — who attended the concert — proclaimed it afterwards to be the most dazzling interpretation he’d ever heard of the score.]

The winner of the Besançon’s inaugural conducting competition in 1951 was the German conductor Reinhard Peters

Reinhard Peters German Conductor

Reinhard Peters (1926-2008)

If he isn’t particularly well-known today, it is because Maestro Peters focused mainly on leading opera productions in his native country – serving as music director first at the Deutscher Oper am Rhein, then at the Münster Theatre, and finally at the Deutscher Oper Berlin beginning in 1970. Away from the opera stage, during the 1970s Peters was music director of the Philharmonia Hungarica in the orchestra’s adopted German city of Marl, as well as serving as a regular guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and other German orchestras. 

Martha Argerich Reinhard Peters Mozart Doremi

Martha Argerich’s 1966 live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with the Hamburg Radio Symphony conducted by Reinhard Peters has been released on the Doremi label.

As for his rather scant work in the recording studio, Maestro Peters collaborated with operatic soloists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Rita Streich and Ernst Haefliger plus guitarist Siegfried Behrend and violist Atar Arad in several well-received releases on the Decca/London, DGG and Telefunken labels. 

Sir Alexander Gibson Scottish conductor

The 1951 runner-up at Besançon: Sir Alexander Gibson (1926-1995).

Unfortunately, having been injured in a traffic accident while on holiday in France in the mid-1990s impeded Peters’ ability to conduct in subsequent years.  In all, his was a modest career by international standards – but certainly a respectable one. 

On the other hand, Sir Alexander Gibson, the runner-up at the 1951 Besançon Competition, enjoyed greater international success in his career including being credited for a number of highly regarded orchestral recordings on the British Decca label in the 1960s — several of which are considered touchstone interpretations.

Sibelius Gibson RCA Victor

A critically acclaimed recording of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 featuring Sir Alexander Gibson and the London Symphony Orchestra (American release by RCA Victor, 1960).

While additional composers were selected to chair Besançon juries following Florent Schmitt at the 1951 inaugural competition – notably Henri Büsser, Max d’Ollone and Marius Constant – in more recent years the competition has chosen internationally renowned conductors rather than composers to chair the juries. 

Here is the impressive list of the Besançon jury chairpersons empaneled since 2000:

Paul Daniel British conductor

The British conductor Paul Daniel is the jury chairperson for the 2021 Besançon Competition for Young Conductors.

As for its standing among the numerous international conducting competitions now being held, the Besançon prize continues to be one of the most coveted. The competition attracts hundreds of participants from all over the world — not just for the €12,000 in prize money but also for the substantial international notoriety and prestige that comes with winning. 

Typically, 250 or more contenders appear before the Besançon jury during each competition. These days, the preliminary rounds of the competition are held at six locations across the world (in Berlin, Beijing, London and Montréal in addition to Paris and Besançon in France).  The preliminary live auditions are performed with piano-duo accompaniment, while the final round in Besançon for the 20 finalists employs two French orchestras. 

Importantly – and unlike other conductor competitions – the candidate selection and adjudication process is based not on documentation (biography and/or video footage), but on the live auditions exclusively. The only “proviso” is that each contender must be under the age of 35 to participate.

Nodoka Okisawa Japanese conductor

Nodoka Okisawa, winner of the most recent Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors (2019).

With the large number of conducting competitions today, one might wonder how many of them will successfully achieve long-term viability and success.  After all, some have withered or died on the vine after an initial flurry of interest. 

But that fate doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the Besançon Competition. Indeed, the 2021 event will be its 57th one — and all signs point to many more happening in the future.

There’s one other particularly interesting aspect regarding the Besançon Competition.  Several of the prizewinners have distinguished themselves in their careers as champions of the music of Florent Schmitt — in particular Michel Plasson, Jacques Mercier, Marc Soustrot and Lionel Bringuier.  Likewise, the three most recent Besançon jury chairpersons — Leonard Slatkin, Yan-Pascal Tortelier and Paul Daniel — are strong advocates for the composer’s artistry.

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