Wellington Aria Contest final: singers in good form

The Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria Contest

Finals of Wellington Regional Aria Contest of Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society
Adjudicator: Glenese Blake

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 21 August 2011, 7.30pm

The contest that was The Evening Post aria contest for many years continues in good heart. This year, the contestants were all past or present students of the New Zealand School of Music, and almost all had been recently through a period of very hard work, as cast members of the brilliant, highly entertaining and successful production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is therefore doubly gratifying to note that all were in good form, and the performances were of a very high standard, as judge Glenese Blake noted in her concluding remarks.

Compère Richard Greager, one of the voice tutors at NZSM, was an excellent MC, and gave succinct, sometimes humorous, introductions to the operas from which the arias had been selected by the singers

There were two rounds, with the singers performing in the same order each time. Hugh McMillan accompanied all except one of the singers (the other being accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn), and did so with an economy of gesture and a sympathetic rapport with each singer. The piano was never too loud, but gave sufficient support and attention to dynamics in each aria.

First up each time was Imogen Thirlwell. Her enthusiastic and committed performances were backed by strong singing, with appropriate facial expression in, firstly, Mozart’s “Padre, germani, addio” from Idomeneo. Sometimes those expressions were overdone for the relative intimacy of the church, compared with a staged performance in a theatre. An almost constant mezzo-forte palled after a while. Nevertheless, the performance deserved a ‘Well done!’

Bridget Costello was next, who sang so well as Tytania in the Britten opera. She chose “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka. It was beautifully sung, in Czech, with every note in place, and the mood conveyed well. However, there was too much distracting gesture. Such a lovely aria doesn’t need this. It is a contemplation of, and a conversation with the moon, not an action song or a Tai Chi exercise.

Amelia Ryman chose an aria from Manon by Massenet: “Adieu, notre petite table”. Wearing a beautiful classical gown, Ryman sang this in very dramatic fashion, with a good variation of dynamics and tone. It was a very fine performance.

Rose Blake’s plain red dress matched the hangings and carpet in St. Andrew’s. Her “Je dis que rien m’épouvante” (Micaela’s aria) from Carmen by Bizet was sung well, and her voice had developed more power than I had previously heard it display. There were some quite lovely sounds, but I did not feel involved in Micaëla’s plight. There was little engagement or communication with the audience.

Daniela-Rosa Young’s beautiful dress, and the dark red rose she held, matched the décor also. This singer communicated well with the audience, through eye-contact. She had wonderful control, beautiful pianissimos, especially on high notes, and after she had finished singing “Ah, non credea” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, was quite relaxed, unlike some of the other performers, despite the difficulty of this piece. Hugh McMillan’s delicate pianism in the recitative was enchanting. After Daniela had sung, I wrote “1” in the margin of my paper.

Thomas Atkins is an assured tenor, singing his aria “De miei bollenti” from La Traviata by Verdi with great ease. His Italian was good (the judge had comments about some of the Italian she heard). The top of his voice is exciting, and Italianate, but he had a hint of roughness at the endings of some high notes. Nevertheless, his singing was very accomplished.

Last year’s second place-getter, Kieran Rayner, sang an aria in Russian: Yeletsy’s aria from The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky. His is a very secure baritone, and his stance was relaxed. The modulations Tchaikovsky has written make this quite a difficult aria, not to mention the language. Rayner did not seem totally at ease or in command, although his high notes were very fine. Perhaps a little more variety was needed in both dynamics and emotional passion.

A third male singer followed (apparently the order was arrived at by drawing lots, so this was complete chance): Thomas Barker. He was accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn, who began somewhat louder than Hugh McMillan had played, though he soon adjusted, but over-pedalled. This aria, “Within this frail crucible” from Benjamin Britten’s Lucretia was perhaps a little too low in the voice for Barker, but his high notes were gorgeous. His intonation suffered a couple of times, but the mood and character were communicated well.

Isabella Moore made a great job of Mimì’s famous aria from La Bohème by Puccini: “Si mi chiamino Mimì”. Her voice has a luscious quality over a wide range. She has an easy manner on stage, and communicates well with the audience. Her voice production appears effortless – a bonus for her hearers, who do not want to worry about how the singer is achieving her sounds. Her language was good; altogether an excellent performance.

After a short interval, the second round began, with quite a long aria from Imogen Thirlwell: Monica’s waltz from The Medium by Menotti. Thirwell told the story of Monica and Toby (in English) very effectively throughout quite a long aria. Her words were enunciated supremely well, which made me wonder if there should be an award for the best rendition of a song or aria sung in English, to match Jenny Wollerman’s award for the equivalent in French.

As Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Bridget Costello was well cast. However, again there was far too much gesture. It should be primarily about singing and putting over a story, unless the performers are in a fully staged production. The aria was very skilfully sung – and accompanied. Characterisation and communication were very good; the voice is bright and flexible, and this was a difficult aria well executed.

Amelia Ryan sang the only item to have been repeated in the programme – Mimì’s aria that had already been sung by Isabella Moore. Amelia Ryan sang it very well, but like an opera singer, compared with the simpler style of Moore. However, her rendition contained a lot of subtleties, and she used the language well. Communication with the audience was exceptionally good.

Another aria in English was sung, by Rose Blake: the Embroidery aria from Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten. Her voice is pleasing, and her high notes were first-class. But her unsmiling arrival before the audience and deadpan presentation for most of the aria, until passion entered, plus her lack of stage presence or feeling of singing to an audience told against her. Yet I remember her excellent performance in Handel’s Semele a couple of years ago – so perhaps she needs an actual dramatic presentation to be able to communicate.

Daniela-Rosa Young gave us many beautiful notes in “Je marche” from Massenet’s Manon. There was subtlety and variety in this aria, which travels through a number of moods, all of which she realised well. One or two notes were little under pitch, but other technical demands were met extremely well, including trills.

Mozart did not seem to suit Thomas Atkins as well as the Italian aria had. His voice cracked a couple of times in “Un’ aura amorosa” from that composer’s Così fan Tutte. In my opinion, a smoother tone was needed.

Kieran Rayner provoked greater applause, vocal as well as manual, with his performance of Figaro’s well-known aria “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville by Rossini. He entered, singing, from the back of the church, and acted out the part, even with a prop, while Hugh McMillan had, for the only time, to resort to a page-turner, such was the pace of this aria. It suited him much better than the Russian one in the first half. His fluency, diction and characterisation were superb, and his voice vibrant, compelling and euphonious. The great pace of the aria seemingly was not a problem for him. This performance was indeed hard to beat.

“O! vin, dissipe la tristesse” from Hamlet by Thomas, was Thomas Barker’s offering. He produced very fine singing with great resonance. His facial expressions were part of his good communication with the audience.

Finally, Isabella Moore sang again – “Come scoglio” from Così fan Tutte. Her full voice made the most of this superb aria, with its extensive range. Her singing was expressive, and very true; the words were splendid and although her breathing was sometimes a little noisy, this was a marvellous performance.

Now for the awards:

The judge agreed with me, and awarded the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria prize and Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup to Daniela Rosa-Young, who also won the Jenny Wollerman Award for a French aria. Runner-up to the main award was Kieran Rayner. Winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup ‘for the young entrant with the most potential’ went to Amelia Ryman, while the Rokfire Cup (spelt thus, not “Rockfire” as in the programme) for the most outstanding competitor (in all the senior vocal classes in the Hutt Valley Competitions, not only the aria contest) was won by Imogen Thirlwell. Congratulations to all; each competitor in the final received $100.

Here was another concert which suffered from insufficient audience, caused in part at least from a lack of advertising. I’m told that in Rotorua, the aria contest commands a full house. I’m sure the quality of the contestants’ performances was just as high in Wellington, and efforts should be made to reach the widest possible public. There was no advertising for this event in ‘Live Diary’ on Radio New Zealand Concert that day, for example.

This was an evening of superb singing. Yet barely 40 people came to hear it. A large proportion of them were fellow-students with the contestants; many others, their family members. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the quality on show here deserved many more hearers.

Mêler Ensemble: programme changes but all is forgiven

Sunday Concerts (Wellington Chamber Music)

Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor for violin and viola after Handel; Janáček: Pohádka (Fairy Tale); Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; Brahms Piano quartet in G minor, Op 25

Mêler Enesmble (Josef Špaček – violin, Amanda Verner – viola, Aleisha Verner – cello, Andrew Tyson – piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 21 August 3pm

‘Mêler? Bien sûr; les instruments se mêlent parfaitement, avec bonheur’.

As there was with the Mêler Ensemble’s concert at Lower Hutt, there was some disappointment that the programme had been changed, caused ostensibly by the late replacement of the original pianist (Tanya Gabrielian). Waikanae too had their promised Schumann replaced by Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat. At Wellington the music of the first half was changed, from Schubert and Brahms to pieces by Handel/Halvorsen, Janáček and Piazzolla. The reasons for these late changes can actually have had nothing to do with the change of pianist, as he was named along with the advertised programmes.

Comments I heard at the end of the first half, however, suggested that all had been forgiven, so unexpectedly delightful most had found the unheralded and largely unknown music.

At this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson I had heard the variations by Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen, drawn from the last movement of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor. Then it was played in the version for violin and cello by two members of the Hermitage Trio, one of the overseas guest ensembles that adorned the festival throughout. It was the only piece that was common to the programme played at Lower Hutt on 11 August.

This afternoon it was played by violinist Špaček and violist Amanda Verner – Halvorsen’s original version. Such a hybrid piece calls for a compromise between the performance style of the high baroque and that of the late romantic period and I can imagine performances that lean too far in one or other direction. Here, using ordinary modern instruments, and acknowledging the musical conventions of the turn of the century, long before any serious thought was given to period authenticity in performance, it would probably have been deadly to adopt an 18th century style.

Handel’s splendid theme was only enhanced by the arrangement and especially by this performance which was filled with all the richness, power and tonal variety available to players on modern instruments. Both players also happen to be superb musicians who created gorgeous ensemble, brilliant virtuosity, as well as occasional surprise with earthy and passionate passages. In true Romantic fashion, the piece built up to an exciting climax at the end that was brilliantly executed.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (strictly, just ‘Tale’) might be a story told in music, but even paying no attention to the story, the music, as idiosyncratic as the composer normally is, stands on its own feet. It’s in three movements. Here the two instruments, cello and piano, play almost entirely different roles, the roles of the lovers in the story whose fate rests in the balance for most of its duration; and in this lies a good deal of the interest of the music. In the opening movement the cello play pizzicato for a long time alongside the piano that ripples with a sort of hesitating impulsiveness.

Anyone familiar with Janáček’s piano music such as In the Mists or On an Overgrown Path would have no trouble identifying this, with its mood of uneasy ardour, even in the happier last movement where a happy resolution can be foreseen.

Even though the second section is lighter, sunnier in tone, each instrument retains its separateness; the dialogue is conducted by players of very striking technical panache and the ability to invest music with drama and personality.

The third, and another very different, piece was Astor Piazzolla’s impressions of the four seasons in Buenos Aires. None of the pieces in the first half called for all four instruments; the Piazzolla came close, in an arrangement by one José Bragato for violin, cello and piano. Though it would be interesting to hear it first in the clothes Piazzolla gave it – the bandoneon quartet – this more European model, if not much suggesting the inimitable sound of the bandoneon, carried the essentials in terms of rhythms and melodic accents, the little rolling, chromatic left-hand motifs at the piano for example. Thus I might have been misled in sensing the flavour of a perhaps French chamber piece, such as Milhaud. At many points I felt I could hear the influence of his Paris teacher Nadia Boulanger, though she was famous for leading her students to discover, to cultivate whatever was their own essential voice as composer. The arrangement offered moments for occasional bravura display, for example in a small-scale, brilliant cadenza for Špaček in the first movement.

Even in the slightly surprising, Schubertian melody in the third, Spring, movement, where Europe seemed close at hand, the tango was always there, and the players, each exhibiting both individuality and a fine spirit of ensemble, let us hear their own delight in it.

The one piece remaining from the original programme was Brahms’s first Piano Quartet. It’s one of the best loved of his works, containing the sort of melodies that are found in the first Piano Trio or the Op 18 Sextet.

Great delicacy distinguished the opening of the quartet, with teasing hints of the sort of tunes that follow and which soon emerged with full-blown magnificence.

The beauty of this work rests for the most part on the ensemble writing where individual instruments, or rather their players, rarely draw attention to themselves. That’s not to say that Brahms doesn’t employ them to offer contrasting feelings, as happens in the Intermezzo, where slightly disturbed strings underlie a sunnier, more spirited mood in the piano. The gypsy-style last movement drew attention to the close accord between the sisters on viola and cello, very naturally pitted at times against the piano or violin.

It was wise not to have changed this item in the programme as it was undoubtedly the most looked forward to and the performance fulfilled every hope for this concert, ending with a marvelous joyfulness.

There was long applause at the end and it was rewarded by part of the last movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat.