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‘A shared passion for quality’

SALZBURG—In the movie “The Sound of Music” —and I bet for most Filipinos the movie is what immediately comes to mind when they hear of this city in Austria within view of the Alps—the Von Trapp family takes the opportunity offered by a music festival to slip away from Nazi control and escape to freedom in neutral Switzerland.

Well, it seems that music festivals aren’t really all that unusual in Salzburg. The city, after all, is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and of another musical giant of a later era, Herbert von Karajan, plus of course the beloved Von Trapps of “Sound of Music” fame. In the words of Helga Rabl Stadler, chair of the ongoing festival, Salzburg is “really a town of music,” with huge, enthusiastic audiences trooping into concert halls and loudly applauding and cheering the artists who make their way to the stage.

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Currently, the city is in the middle of the summer Salzburg Festival, presenting a rich menu of operas, concerts and performances that draw the best musical and artistic talents from all over the world. Last weekend, the Salzburg Festival also hosted the finals of the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, featuring three finalists that, said Nestlé chair Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, “are ready to launch important international careers.”

The three finalists—Ciaran McAuley, 33, from Ireland; Alexander Prior, 23, from Britain (though he proudly proclaims his Scottish roots); and Aziz Shokhakimov, 27, from Uzbekistan —are certainly prime examples of young musicians who have trained and now work with orchestras in various parts of the world.

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AGAIN and again, Brabeck-Letmathe, who is Austrian himself, stressed that the three young men were not so much “competing” or taking part in a contest as they were aspiring for an award and an honor.

Some 80 young conductors (between 21 and 35 years old) from around the world sent in their applications for this year’s recognition. After weeding through the work histories, repertoire and video recordings of their performances, the international board of jurors selected eight candidates who were invited to visit Salzburg in the spring to conduct two modern pieces each. From this audition performances, the jurors then selected the three finalists. In consultation with the jurors and organizers, each finalist chose his repertoire, with the only condition being that they include one modern piece.

Also during the weekend, the winner of the previous year’s competition, the impossibly handsome Swiss-French Lorenzo Viotti, also conducted a concert, perhaps to show the kind of future and international career that awaits the new winner.

Last Sunday, at the end of the search involving three concerts that bathed spectators in the airs and pleasures of classical music, the 2016 winner was finally chosen: Aziz Shokhakimov, who during his concert with the Camerata Salzburg and featuring Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei, enraptured the audience with a program of Mozart and Beethoven and contemporary composer Jorg Widmann.

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WHAT may have won Shokhakimov the award was his palpable connection not just with the Camarata but also with the members of the audience, drawing them in to the drama of the music with his vigorous presence and performance.

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The challenges facing the three young men were more than formidable, given just two opportunities each to rehearse with the orchestra. At this time, they were expected not just to establish rapport with the musicians but also to convey their own interpretation of the score, and in essence whip the musicians into a shared vision and approach, working in harmony and unity.

To my mind, all three are already winners. They all enjoy international careers, with McAuley working as resident conductor of the Malaysian Philharmonic, for instance. Russian-trained Prior has worked as assistant conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and has since done stints with orchestras in Europe and the United States.

During the announcement of the award winner at the salon of the Mozarteum, a jewel of a performance venue in the heart of Salzburg, one young woman stood out. She was the lovely, sweet-looking wife of Shokhakimov who looked elated and bursting with pride, even if her demeanor remained low-key. Her husband made his debut conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan at age 13, and has since established an active career conducting operas throughout Europe.

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INDEED, this year’s competition underscores the theme (in fact, the reason) for the partnership between Nestlé and the Salzburg Festival: “a shared passion for quality.”

The partnership dates back 25 years, with Nestlé at the start providing sponsorships for young people to attend the events of the festival, until in 2010 the Young Conductors Award was conceived and given out for the first time.

At the start, said Brabeck-Letmathe, there was considerable criticism of the corporate sponsorships behind the festival, with people expressing concern that businesses would seek to somehow influence and thus tarnish the artistic integrity of the festival.

But both the organizers and sponsors stress that there has been no such “cross-pollination” in the years since. The festival gains the assurance of continuity and the wherewithal that allows for bold experiments that carry its artistic legacy forward. And in the words of Brabeck-Letmathe, the sponsors gain not just prestige and recognition but also an expression of their own strivings for quality beyond the limits of time.

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TAGS: Alps, Austria, Europe, Music, opinion, Salzburg, Salzburg Festival, Switzerland
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