Wellington Regional Aria Contest: Dame Malvina Major Prize


Wellington Regional Aria Contest Final: Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society; Adjudicator: Angela Gorton. Finalists: Rose Blake, Kieran Rayner, Amelia Berry, Elitsa Kappatos, Olga Gryniewicz. Pianists: Catherine McKay and Emily Mair

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Sunday 23 August 2009

In recent years what used to be the Aria Contest of the Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society has struggled to survive. For many years it was The Evening Post Aria, but after The Dominion and The Evening Post merged in 2002, the paper dispensed with that responsibility. It has now been taken under the wing of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the first prize is now a generous $4000.

That being so, it was surprising that there were only five entrants to the aria competition, compared with more than 20 in some earlier years. There was a clash with the aria contest in Dunedin and there were other apparently competing events that prevented many singers from other parts of the country from taking part this year.

The adjudicator was Angela Gorton. The accompanist Catherine Norton who gave the most sensitive support to all but one of the singers; Emily Mair accompanied Kieran Rayner.

All singers were between 20 and 22 years of age, and all but one of them had appeared in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Semele.

The first contestant was Rose Blake who was the alternate Semele. She chose Marzelline’s aria from Fidelio, ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’. It is usually hard to take the first position in such a contest and nervousness and probably inadequate warming up affected her voice which, though proving quite strong, was tight and her phrasing uneven. It was no surprise that her second aria, ‘I’ll take no less’, from Semele, found her in much better shape, more practised and confident in her gestures as a result of the stage experience.

Kieran Rayner, who had sung the role of Athamus in Semele, made a singular impression at once, singing the aria ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähne’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, letting the audience realize that there’s more to it that the familiar Marietta’s Lied. He showed a naturally attractive voice, with comfortable delivery, never under pressure. His second aria showed similar accomplishment, from a contrasting opera style, Ambroise Thomas ‘other’ opera, Hamlet: ‘O vin, dissipe la tristesse’ (not something that you’ll find in the Shakespeare version). He sang with flair, in good French, his rhythm, phrasing and dynamics all under fine discipline. I had no doubt that he would be hard to beat in this small field.

Amelia Berry was the Semele that I saw on the opening night but she refrained from making use of that experience. She sang the charming, lyrical aria ‘Ruhe sanft’ from Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaïde and later, ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville. She failed to articulate the top notes in the Mozart; perhaps her choice had taken her out of her natural register, or perhaps it was simply nerves. So I was not surprised with a more comfortable performance of her Rossini, lying a little lower though with more bravura, which she carried off with agility and accuracy. In this it was easier to gauge the quality of her voice, and I thought she might win one of the prizes.

Elitsa Kappatos did not have a role in Semele. Though she chose pieces that are very familiar, pieces that make considerable demands, her performances were creditable. ‘O mio babbino caro’ was a little shrill, but her intonation was accurate and she made a nice personal impression. She gave herself every advantage in the Habanera from Carmen, with an appropriate costume, she refrained from excessive gestures, yet carried off the confident, strong-willed, mezzo role with a certain flair.

Olga Gryniewicz had made a vivid impression in Semele, as Iris, and she chose one of her main arias in the contest: ‘Endless pleasure’. It was a shade less striking here, removed from the theatrical setting, the line a little too staccato, and her voice monochrome. But she did well to tackle Norina’s fine, coloratura aria from Don Pasquale, ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’. Her voice coped with its high, airy, innocent character, her Italian was good, and rhythmic sense – rubato – well cultivated. She draws attention as a spunky, characterful singer; but an underlying strain is audible, reflecting a voice production difficulty.

Nevertheless, I had thought she would get a mention among the prize winners.

Angela Gorton awarded the Dame Malvina Major Foundation prize and the prize for the singer displaying the most consistent standard, as well as the Jenny Wollerman award for the best song or aria in French to Amelia Berry. Kieran Rayner was given the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding singer in the senior vocal class and the Robin Dumbell Cup for the singer with the most potential. In effect he was runner-up.

Finally, I must draw attention to the longstanding devotion to the aria contest’s survival by its almost single-handed manager, Betty Bennett, for the Hutt Valley Competitions Society. It is high time that others concerned with singing in Wellington took a share of the responsibility for the contest. Contests may not be favoured in certain quarters but they still represent, in a career that is based in public performance, an important way to gain attention in a frighteningly competitive scene.

Let us remember that Wellington’s own competitions society collapsed in the 1970s; since then the society in the Hutt Valley has filled the gap. It must not be allowed to stumble.

Bach organ recital from Mews at St Mary of the Angels

Lobet den Herrn:  Winter organ series at St Mary of the Angels: Douglas Mews

Bach: Partita on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, BWV 768; Sonata No 2 in C minor, BWV
526; Prelude and Fugue in E flat (St Anne) BWV 552

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Sunday 23 August 2009

This was the second in the series of three recitals on the Maxwell Fernie organ at St Mary of the Angels. The first was by the, shall we say, organiste titulaire of St Mary’s, Donald Nicolson. This one was by the City organist and keyboard specialist at the New Zealand School of Music, Douglas Mews. After the concert he talked in the organ loft to those interested, about the music and the organ. It was interesting to hear his comments, shorn of the usual breathless veneration of Fernie’s handiwork (to which I have subscribed), noting some of the quirks and difficulties to be encountered with the instrument’s registrations.

However, here was a fine concert of some of Bach’s great organ works, culminating in the
bold and sanguine St Anne Prelude and Fugue (though, as he noted, the tune was merely a bit like the hymn known to Anglicans as St Anne’s or ‘O God our help in ages past’; Bach would not have known it). It is thought that the two parts were probably not composed to be linked in the way they eventually came to be published.

The rest of the programme was not of particularly familiar music.

The Partita BWV 768 is a set of eleven variations on the chorale, ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, of delightful variety, starting with its exposition that involved sprightly duets between pedals and manuals. Each variation led to quicker, grander or more elaborate treatment and Mews exploited some of the more entertaining stops discreetly on the way, including nasal reed stops in the third variation. It ended with a commanding summation of the piece’s essential spirit.

The set of six organ sonatas, BWV 825 – 830 are less familiar than the sets of sonatas, suites and partitas for cello, violin and other keyboards. They were probably written in Bach’s first years at Leipzig – the mid 1720s and to some extent made use of recycled music; they may have been written as studies for his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedmann. They are not easy, a compilation of the technical problems that a gifted student would want to master. However, their tone is generally genial, tuneful and not burdened with heavy textures, and the Fernie organ proved an admirable instrument in the hands of Mews.

The St Anne Prelude and Fugue was the most imposing of the three pieces: the prelude enjoyed certain droll figures, such as the planting of single heavy treads on the pedals, dotted rhythms. The fugue may not be a heavyweight but it is rich in imaginative devices and developments that Mews made even more interesting with his spirited, rhythmic playing and the expert, sometimes droll choice of stops.