La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

A Massive Undertaking

The La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra at the Queen Elisabeth Competition

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
7 min.

The Queen Elisabeth Competition is one of the world’s most prestigious musical competitions. It also represents a huge logistical challenge. On the occasion of this 2023 edition dedicated to the Voice, we looked into the practical issues raised by the participation of the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in the competition …

From 21 May to 3 June 2023, singers from around the world will take part in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. In December 2022, the organizers of the competition registered a record number of 412 applications. After a long selection process based on videos viewed confidentially, the names of the 68 candidates selected to take part in the first round were announced (following a number of withdrawals, 55 young artists finally appeared before the jury).

While the first round and the semi-final involve piano accompaniment, the final, scheduled from 1 to 3 June, takes place in the presence of the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its music director, Alain Altinoglu. This participation requires a tremendous amount of planning and organizing to ensure the smooth running of the competition. On the front line, our colleagues in the music library have been involved in the project since the autumn of 2022 and the first exchanges with the competition organizers. After the preselections, the selected candidates had to submit their programmes for the various rounds, including the final. In total, nearly 200 arias, lieder and other vocal numbers were prepared by the music library. Half of the works were already available in the library, but boxes of scores were shipped daily to La Monnaie with the scores that had to be ordered. For reasons of copyright, the publishers of some of the scores have to be contacted for permission to scan the scores and then perform them. In other words, these scores are rented by the competition.

Then begins the work of cataloguing and checking the scores to ensure that not a single note of music that could be performed in the final is missing. The first and last pages of the candidates’ piano reductions are also consulted to find out as clearly as possible where they start and where they stop singing. It is also important to check that the candidates and the orchestra are working on the same versions of each aria. All this work – which must be multiplied by the number of musicians involved, since each musician must receive his or her own copy of the score – is carried out numerically by a team of three full-time persons and one part-time person.

One of the other main issues is the instrumentation of the pieces so as to know the number of musicians involved and the instruments required for each concert. It is necessary, for instance, to look through all the scores to see if there are any unusual instruments, such as harpsichord, positive organ, lute, recorder, saxophone, guitar, mandolin, etc. These are instruments that sometimes have to be rented and for which it is above all necessary to find competent and available musicians. At the time of the interviews conducted in preparation for this article, several positions potentially needed to be reinforced (flutes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and harp) or simply recruited (a guitar and two saxophones) … To avoid having to look for musicians at the last minute, contacts are established in advance in order to build up a reserve of musicians available until the end of the competition. Although this is quite rare, it has happened that certain pieces whose nomenclatures are too complex had to be rejected.

On Monday 22 May, the list of the twenty-four singers selected for the semi-final is announced, allowing the teams to finalize the programmes over three more days. This represents a hundred music numbers, which will further be reduced to fifty when the jury finally announces the twelve finalists.

But what happens next? During the week of 22 May, the conductor studies the programmes chosen by the twenty-four candidates for their possible participation in the final. On the evening of 25 May, the list of works to be performed in the final is finalized and the next morning the first rehearsal takes place during which the musicians of La Monnaie discover all the pieces. This gives Alain Altinoglu only one night to fine-tune some forty pieces. In theory, the exercise would require several different orchestras, because the instrumentalists face a real mix of genres: baroque, romantic, contemporary … and each time the orchestra has to adapt to it to best serve each candidate.

Then, on 30 and 31 May, four sessions allow each finalist to spend forty-five minutes with the orchestra rehearsing the arias or songs of their programme. Contact with the music library is maintained throughout the process in case of changes to the line-up of instruments or other revisions to the scores. Another issue that has to be dealt with is the placement of the instruments each evening on the stage of the Henry Le Boeuf Hall. Depending on the programmes of the four candidates per concert, the geometry of the orchestra can vary significantly. On each day of the final, a final rehearsal takes place between 3pm and 6pm.

For Alain Altinoglu and the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, the final represents a huge musical and physical challenge. It requires the ability to master extremely different pieces in a very short space of time, ranging from Bach to Wagner by way of Mozart and contemporary works. The discovery of well-known pieces in the programmes or pieces performed recently by the musicians brings with it a certain relief. But the atmosphere among the orchestra is above all electric, typical of the anticipation and adrenaline specific to major international competitions and the live broadcasting of the concerts. It should not be forgotten either that all the work described above takes place during the ongoing season of La Monnaie and during the preparations for the coming season. Not only are there the final performances of Henry VIII and rehearsals for The Nose, but also preparations for the world premiere in September of Cassandra, Bernard Foccroulle’s new opera, not to mention Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and the first part of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen… Although, at the end of the marathon that is the Queen Elisabeth Competition, only the finalists go home with prizes, we feel that all the teams involved in the organization and realization of this exceptional event deserve a medal …

Share this page