Concours de la Chanson: second year of splendid initiative

French singing competition

Songs by Angelillo et Hamel, Satie, Brel, Berlioz, Duparc, Debussy, Poulenc, Fauré, Delibes

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 3 July 2011, 8pm

The commitment of the Alliance Française Wellington to providing a competition for singers continues; the first competition last year gave a platform for some splendid singing of French chanson and mélodie, and Sunday night’s final continued that.

There were fewer finalists in the Chanson Moderne section this year than last year, and of the four, two chose to sings songs by Jacques Brel.

First, we heard Estere Dalton sing Je veux te dire une chanson, by Angelillo et Hamel. Dalton is a confident singer who used a microphone, and was accompanied by Andrew Bruce on the piano. She sang with an Edith Piaf-type voice and delivery. The song included unusual tonalities, nevertheless I thought her intonation suspect at times. My searches on the internet have failed to uncover whether this is one composer or two, however I did discover that the first name is spelt as above, and not as on the printed programme.

Erik Satie’s cabaret song La diva de l’Empire was sung by Angelique McDonald, accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn on piano, but without microphone. This was an attractive voice, but projection was uneven between lower and upper registers. Some gesture was used, but as with the previous singer, it did not appear to have much point.

Daniela-Rosa Young (who, for the second year running, suffered incorrect printing of her name in the first half of the programme), sang Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas most effectively. Her close use of the microphone was just right for this music. She had the style for this song, and created the atmosphere of French nostalgia and regret (despite the title of Edith Piaf’s famous song) right from the beginning. Her words were very good, and she used them, her breath and her face as part of the expression of the music. Sometimes she was sotto voce, at others full voice. A good voice it was, and she was given a very sympathetic accompaniment by Julie Coulson.

The last singer in this section was Kieran Rayner, now quite an experienced singer in a variety of styles. Jacques Brel was his composer of choice also, with the song Amsterdam. He was accompanied on the piano accordion by Jonathan Berkahn, to give that authentic Paris sound. However, either Berkahn was too quiet, or Rayner (with microphone) was too loud; certainly the balance was not right. Some gesture, stamping in time and a beautiful unaccompanied introductory passage all helped to give atmosphere, as did the singer’s spoken introduction to the piece, which was a confident communication compared with those of some of the other singers. I found it a little tiring to be harangued at the volume Rayner chose, but there was no doubt about his commitment to the song.

After a short interval, we heard the classical items. These were French mélodie written in the nineteenth century or since. All were attractive songs, some familiar and some not, but all worth hearing.

The only singer in the finals of both sections was Daniela-Rosa Young, who sang Berlioz’s L’Île Inconnue. While her announcement was a little too quiet, her fine voice was well-produced, and her French enunciation and pronunciation were good. Gestures were rather meaningless, but she did put the meaning into the music and the words to an extent. Julie Coulson was her excellent accompanist, and to all the other singers except one.

Isabella Moore sang the gorgeous L’invitation au voyage by Henri Duparc. It was pleasing to hear her include in her introduction the name of the poet: Baudelaire, and an explanation of the meaning of the poem. Her voice is smooth and she gave good delivery of the words, but there was not enough variation in dynamics in her performance. Although she explained that the word ‘luxury’ featured in the poem, her voice did not convey that feeling when it came.

Bianca Andrew, who was the winner of the chanson section last year, performed De Soir, the fourth song in Debussy’s Proses Lyrique; the composer wrote the poem. Andrew gave a confident, fluent, indeed enthusiastic introduction which sounded spontaneous. She used both words and music well to characterise the meaning of the song. Some meaningful head movements conveyed more than vague hand gestures would have. There was good variety of tone; this was an excellent performance, including Julie Coulson’s playing of a very busy accompaniment.

Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant (My cadaver is as soft as a glove) sounds a pretty macabre title – but then, Poulenc was given to irony and wit. Imogen Thirlwall’s rich, mature voice, after a good spoken introduction, led us into the song, which she invested with meaning. This was a consummate performance.

Next was Bridget Costello with C, a 1943 song setting a poem by Aragon. After a rather formal introduction. which was nevertheless done well, Costello revealed a strong voice with quite a lot of natural vibrato. This was not a particularly demanding song, but it was well sung.

Thomas Atkins followed, with Adieu by Fauré. After a good introduction, Atkins sang most appealingly. He has a lovely voice, and varied it more than did some of the other contestants, doing something with every note and syllable. His French was admirable, but the song was rather a short one.

A song by Delibes followed: Les filles de Cadix, sung by Rose Blake. This was a saucy song. Rose Blake put over both her humorous introduction and the song in a confident, self-possessed manner accompanied by Claire ? Her lively rendition incorporated quite a lot of gesture (meaningful this time). Blake had a pleasing tone; her voice was strong and well produced. The whole was performed with considerable aplomb.

The last performer was Fredi Jones, who sang Fauré’s charming Aprés un Rêve. Following a very good introduction, his singing demonstrated a very effective use of the language, and a light voice, reminiscent of the late great Gérard Souzay. Although he started very well, I felt that further on he could have varied the voice a little more, and lingered more over the ornaments in the melody; they seemed rushed.

There was a good selection of songs from a cross-section of composers. All the songs presented some difficulties. All the contestants had a good command of French pronunciation, and put the words over well.

The prizes offered were the same for each category, i.e. a first, a second and a third prize in each. The first prizes were $2000, plus a master-class at the Conservatoire Musique de Nouvelle Calédonie; second, $500 and one term of free French lessons at the Alliance Française; third, $250 and one term of free lessons at the Alliance. There were a number of sponsors for the Concours, including the French Embassy; the Ambassador spoke briefly at the prize-giving part of the evening.

Judges were experienced New Zealand singer Catherine Pierard, and M. Bruno Zanchetta, Deputy Director of the Conservatoire de Musique de Nouvelle-Calédonie, whose first words were to praise the excellence of Julie Coulson as accompanist.

The placings were: Chanson: 1st Kieran Rayner, 2nd Daniela-Rosa Young, 3rd Estere Dalton; Mélodie: 1st Bianca Andrew, 2nd Rose Blake, 3rd Fredi Jones.

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