Maestro picks up the baton for new generation of conducters

It takes just 30 minutes for the Leeds Conductors Competition to bring about a total change in the life and career of one fortunate young musician, Saturday night placing that awesome prospect onto the shoulders of the 26-year-old Geoffrey Paterson.

It is an eccentric peculiarity of British audiences that they prefer to see foreign conductors, usually with names they find hard to pronounce, rather than the home-grown variety, the Hall with Mark Elder being the only major English orchestra presently to move away from that scenario.

It was in an effort to showcase to the world our untapped wealth of native talent that the Leeds competition was founded back in 1984, its aim being to restrict it to conductors under the age of 35 and of British nationality. Not only was it unusual in that respect, but it remains one of only a handful of conductor competitions that take place in the world.

It has proved remarkably successful in initiating major careers for every one of its previous eight winners. Yet sadly these have been mainly created abroad, the competition's last winner, Alexander Shelley, about to take up the prestigious position as principal conductor of Germany's Nuremberg Symphony.

Of this year's 52 applicants, 16 were chosen to come to Leeds, and in the early rounds it became obvious that many suffered from little exposure

in directing a top-flight orchestra, even though many had, of necessity, been abroad to seek education and opportunities to direct public concerts.

For Peterson it is not the very modest financial First Prize, and the Audience Prize that went with it, but the long list of British orchestras that are linked with the award and who will, over the next couple of years, offer him public appearances and that exposure to agents and concert promoters that will come in its wake.

He is a conductor with a safe pair of hands who had convinced the jury in a spacious journey through Elgar's Enigma Variations that was neat, unfussy and allowed the music to speak for itself, the Orchestra of Opera North responding with that unqualified enthusiasm they had displayed for every competitor throughout the week.

What must never happen again in this competition was the iniquitous disparity between the works on offer to the three finalists. Two were handed such well-known and much-loved works that the orchestra could, proverbially, play them in their sleep, while the third competitor was left with the Sibelius Third Symphony, a score not often played that has proved a conductor's graveyard even for renowned Sibelians.

It was the 17-year-old, Alexander Prior, much seen on television in recent weeks as both composer and conductor, who took up that challenge, his rather over-energetic direction moulding the work to good purpose and a largely satisfying account.

His time will come as he is one of the most exciting prospects we have seen for a long time. At least he will go away from Leeds with much gained experience and safe in the thought that it is a previous second-prize winner who is now carving a most interesting career.

The third prize was awarded to Simon Phillipo who directed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in one of those big red-blooded performances that the orchestra can always produce when they are enjoying themselves.

Maybe this has not been a vintage year, but it has sent out a loud warning signal that a long and hard look at all levels from education to career opportunities is much needed.