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Rob Hilberink on the Rotterdam International Conducting Competition

Applications for the second edition for ICCR are open until December 1, 2023

The Violin Channel recently caught up with Rob Hilberink, executive director of the second edition of the Rotterdam International Conducting Competition — which is set to be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands from June 1 – 13, 2025.

Open to conductors from around the world, the competition applications can be found here. After an online selection, 24 promising conductors will be invited to the semi-finals in Rotterdam, which will take place on June 7, 2024.


Tell us about the International Conducting Competition Rotterdam!

Dare I say that ICCR is the most exciting and extensive project that is presently on offer for young conductors (23-30 years)?

We are currently ramping up towards the second edition, with the deadline of application on December 1st 2023. It might seem strange for a competition that takes place in June 2025, but young conductors are actually applying for a year of career development, starting with the live semi-finals in June 2024, followed by two academies and the Finals from 1-13 June 2025.


When was it founded and what is the vision behind the competition?

Organizing a high level conducting competition is a time consuming project, from the initial idea to the completion of the first edition, which took us about 8 years. We started the competition because there are only very few possibilities for young conductors to perform on their instrument, the orchestra. The main objective is not necessarily to award prizes, but to offer real opportunities to experience the working practice.


What did you learn from the first edition?

Due to COVID-19, the first edition was postponed by one year, this coincidentally created a longer period leading up to the finals, during which we introduced the idea of the academies. The impact of these helped the conductors tremendously and created a real sense of community. We were also pleasantly surprised with how the results of the first edition in 2022 turned out, as it really was able to showcase the strengths of ALL conductors, and not only highlight the winner. 


What sets you apart from other conducting competitions? 

The biggest difference is that we are not focused on eliminations. Of course, we will be narrowing down the number of participants during the Semi-finals. Once the 6 finalists are selected, they will be invited to take part in all five rounds. Each of these specialized rounds resembles a proper project which consists of multiple rehearsals and a concert. Throughout the competition, they will work with four different orchestras, a choir, and multiple soloists.


What can winners expect to receive?

For us, all 6 finalists are winners, hence the official title "Designated winners." The biggest asset for all of them is the gift of time, not only off-stage during the year-long career development phase, but especially on stage. Each conductor will have a total of 10 hours of stage time throughout the competition, which is unparalleled in any music competition. Not only is this beneficial for their growth, but it also gives the jury insight into how these conductors actually operate. On top of this, we will help them to build an extensive network and portfolio. For instance, each one will get the chance to create a short documentary about themselves. 


Can you tell us about the different ensembles the conductors will conduct?

We are extremely fortunate to be able to cooperate with so many high-level orchestras. But, not only that, all of the orchestras have the right mindset and collaborative spirit that is welcoming to young conductors and offers the flexibility to showcase their own signature. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra has a decade-long track record of giving opportunities to upcoming talents, like Lahav Shani, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Valery Gergiev, and even Simon Rattle. The same can be said about the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Klangforum Vienna, which are both cooperative ensembles without a fixed artistic leader. For each project, they closely work together with the conductor to discover new territories. Sinfonia Rotterdam is one of the most versatile chamber orchestras that I know, the love for music is so clear in everything that they do, and are able to deliver the best results no matter the circumstances.  


How did you select your jury for the competition? 

Assembling a jury is a real puzzle. We as international competitions should be impartial, a certain bias is created when you bring together various opinions of esteemed professionals. We try to balance the number of conductors, orchestra executives, and musicians, as well as their nationalities, genders, and ethnic origins. 

We work with a core jury who are present at all rounds, and specialized jurors who are there for just one round. In total more than 30 professionals will witness these young conductors in action.


We saw that you have many female professionals on your jury. How do you feel the gender disparity is currently evolving in the conducting world? 

Gender equality is a major topic in the world of conducting, and a lot of progress has been made in the past years. But, I sense that the industry wants to move quicker than is possible. It will take time before the number of aspiring conductors is balanced, to give you a figure in 2022 only 10% of the applicants were female.

The most important thing we can do as competitions is to showcase role models (a.k.a with our jury) so that hopefully more young talents start pursuing this career path. Of course, this holds true for all current minorities in the classical music world. 


Why do you think it’s important for conductors to be able to conduct in multiple settings (aka opera, symphonic, etc)?

We live in an eclectic age, and to answer the public demand, orchestras nowadays program works from 4 different centuries, sometimes even in one evening. Luckily, you also see that young conductors have a similar natural broad interest, and don’t want to limit themselves to just one specialty. Then again, they don’t have to excel at everything, and with our dedicated rounds, they can accentuate their specialized interests.


What are the main qualities you are looking for in a winner?

Since our competition is modeled after real concert practice, the conductors who excel are the ones who have the most professional attitude. In the end, it is not about the ones with the perfect technique, but those who are natural leaders, who have a collaborative mindset and are able to mediate between the different expectations of the various stakeholders. 

And of course, in these social media-driven times, we are looking for storytellers at heart, who are able to interact with an audience and show interest in what happens in a local community. 


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