And Now for the Real Maestro; Loyal Ally: Donatella Flick Has Been One of the Staunchest Supporters of Music in London over the Past 20 Years

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Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS

YOU know," confides Donatella Flick, patron, philanthropist and glamorous enigma, "this is the room where Churchill died. Right there." She points at a black lacquer coffee table, laden with art books, obligingly the size of a bed. We are in the sunken drawing room of her house near Hyde Park. Hot and heady with flickering White Rhino candles, gorgeous waxy flowers and gleaming silver, it is reminiscent of a sleek, humanist Russian Orthodox shrine.

"And I know for a fact I can tell there is something strange about the place, but I will not say more &" This is an arresting start to any conversation. We have met to discuss the competition which takes her name.

Tomorrow, in front of a jury of worldclass musicians, three young hopefuls will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in the final of the 2008 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition at the Barbican.

Founded in 1990 with HRH The Prince of Wales as Patron, this biennial event has become one of the major music awards in the world. In addition to a cash prize of ?15,000, the winner will become assistant conductor of the LSO for a year, working with the likes of Valery Gergiev, Daniel Harding and Michael Tilson Thomas. The value of such experience is incalculable.

Since the last competition two years ago, mass audiences have been exposed to BBC2's Maestro, in which half a dozen celebrities found out how hard it is to wave a baton to any effect. The musical world remains divided as to whether to cringe or cheer at the endeavour.

Donatella Flick, who instantly reveals a beguiling, deadpan humour, leaves no doubt as to her opinion. At mere mention of the reality TV series, she raises one perfectly arched eye-brow and looks appalled.

"Jee-eez," she exhales, her heavy Italian accent elevating American slang to magnificent disdain. "What am I to say? I do not think it is easy to conduct.

In life you can do everything badly if you really want. Why not? But don't joke. To make fun of talent and skill is a waste of time. That's my humble point of view." She is not a musician. Indeed, she says little on the subject, preferring to give support in this case, buying an orchestra and hiring the Barbican for three evenings. Over the past 20 years she has been one of the most effective supporters of music in London. Last year she was awarded the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award.

Previous recipients include Lord and Lady Sainsbury, Brian Eno and Susan Sontag.

"I don't care if my name is on a brick at Covent Garden or a seat at the New York Met. It doesn't matter. You have to be responsible if you are lucky enough to have money. I don't even care if my competition is called after me or not." Who exactly is Donatella Flick? The answers are manifold, each more exotic than the last. Until a decade ago she was married to Gerhard Rudolph "Muck" Flick, part of the wealthy German industrial dynasty whose empire embraced coal, steel and DaimlerChrysler. Muck's grandfather made his fortune as an arms supplier to the Nazis during the Second World War and presented old master paintings to Hermann Goering as a birthday gift. Muck's brother Friedrich Christian "Mick" Flick recently loaned his own art collection, worth about $300 million, to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin's contemporary art museum.

Donatella grew up mainly in Italy and Switzerland, the daughter of an Ossettian prince and an Italian mother. As a child of seven, she was a champion gymnast. Now in her early fifties, she looks ageless. Does she work at it? "You are joking? Excuse me please, exercise for me is walking from my bed downstairs to this room. It is enough, no?" Her paternal grandarents and most of their family, wealthy landowners, were murdered by the Bolsheviks.

Her father escaped to Italy and met her mother, now nearly 90, who comes from a family of Venetian aristocrats and newspaper magnates. …