Talent aplenty at Wellington Aria Contest but poor publicity denies finalists deserved audience

Wellington Aria Contest Final, 2015
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 6 September 2015, 7pm

By 7.50pm on Sunday there were 5 people seated in the audience; by 7.10pm when the singing began there were about 30.  Of these, most appeared to be other contestants in the earlier stages, teachers, family members, and Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society officials.

Where is the publicity?  The previous Sunday there were well over 300 people attending a concert in Waikanae by Tākiri Ensemble, comprising Anna Leese, Bianca Andrew, Andrew Glover and Robert Tucker.  These people have all participated in competitions in their time – and look where they are now!  Today’s participants may be the stars of tomorrow, and none of them need feel ashamed of the standard of their singing.  The music-loving public enjoys hearing young singers, but needs to know when and where they are!

The more people who know about the event, the more people will come, and their admission charges will pay for the advertising.  There are plenty of vehicles for getting the word out: Upbeat! on Radio NZ Concert, Arts Wellington email newsletter, ‘Regional News’ supplement in the suburban newspapers – not to mention the ‘Coming Events’ pages of Middle-C web-site (where it had been listed).

The adjudicator at this year’s senior vocal competitions was Amanda Atlas, formerly Amanda Winfield, who studied at Victoria University with Emily Mair, and after some years overseas now lives in Christchurch, but works from time to time with Opera Australia.  The aria competition had 22 entries, and eight finalists were called. The performers were all of a high standard, making the adjudicator’s task difficult.

Mark Dorrell and Catherine Norton accompanied, in highly competent fashion; it was a pity that their names were not printed in the programme.  The piano lid was on the short stick, appropriate for accompanying young singers.  Both accompanists achieved delicate pianissimos as well as bold sounds when required.  The compère was again Georgia Jamieson Emms.  She has an actor’s flair for this role, summarising the plots of the operas in brief but witty vein.

The concert was in two halves, with the competitors singing, in the same order, an aria in each half.  I have noted each performer’s two offerings together in this review.

A couple of the performers, Olivia Sheat and Katherine McIndoe, had sung in last year’s contest.  Both had been in the award line-up then.  There were several singers this time whom I considered unlucky not to receive an award.

First up was Eliza Boom, who sang first ‘Si mi chiamano Mimi’ from Puccini’s La bohème, and later ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta’ from I Capuleti e Montecchi by Bellini.  These arias showed off her considerable range and her clear yet warm-toned voice.  It was produced well, and her enunciation, some of the best, and expressive variation of timbre were noteworthy.  She has a powerful voice, but good control.

Imogen Thirlwall was next; she is quite an experienced singer now, with operas and oratorios under her belt.  Her aria ‘The Trees on the Mountains’ from Susannah by Carlisle Floyd, composed 1953-1954.  The soprano produced a lovely resonance in her voice – using the resonators of the face rather than large-mouthed grimaces (not that any of these singers did that).  Her breathing was rather noisy at times.  High notes were mostly well managed, but there were hints of strain and forcing.  She gave expressive effect to the words along, with achieving the style of American opera well.

It was perhaps unfortunate that her second choice was rather similar in style, being ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.  The composer was not in America at this stage; he wrote it before he had to flee the Nazis.  While it was innovative, the inclusion of something from an earlier period would have better demonstrated her versatility.  She exhibited excellent control, yet also passion, and some spoken words were clear and given meaning.

Chelsea Dolman was the third soprano, and she sang ‘Come scoglio’ from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and André Previn’s opera A Streetcar named Desire, (1995), based on the famous Tennessee Williams play.  A dramatically sung recitative and aria, the Mozart demonstrated a voice of even tone throughout its range, with trills and runs managed very proficiently.

The Previn piece was premiered by Renée Fleming in 1998.  She is to visit this country in a week.  Another dramatic soprano (like Eliza Boom), Dolman put over the drama of the piece well.

Jamie Henare, the only male in the contest (it was the same ratio last year) is the possessor of a very fine bass voice; his splendid, full low notes are to die for.  He is young, and his voice will develop for years yet.  He gave us ‘Mi ravviso’ from La Sonnambula by Bellini, then later ‘Il lacerato spirito’, from Simon Boccanegra by Verdi.  Both suited his voice and revealed his range.  In the first he conveyed the character’s nostalgia for his youthful past very well.  In both he used the words – not just communicating them, but making them contribute to the total effect.  Their sonority conveyed the drama.

Ella Smith sang ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’ from Weber’s Der Freischütz.   Her later aria was ‘Il faut partir’ from La Fille du Regiment by Donizetti.  She had an easy style and a good, resonant voice, with pleasing tone when focused, but there were spots of insecure intonation.  Top notes were powerful and strong, and seemingly effortless.  Some miming and movement added to the projection of her arias.

Madison Nonoa was a name I did not know, and she was the only coloratura in the Final. Her first aria was the very florid ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Giulio Cesare by Handel, and her second the lovely ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  She managed the very florid first aria with all its trills and runs with phenomenal skill.  As well as being very demanding, this aria was very fast, and it was notable that her tone was even throughout the considerable range, in fact this improved as time went on.  She was confident, but though the characterisation was good, communication with the audience was less so.

In the second, her manner and voice were appropriate for Pamina.  Just a few times there was some loss of control, but mostly her voice was very focused, and she was able to broaden her tone beautifully.

Olivia Sheat gave us two lovely arias: ‘Donde lieta’ from La bohème and ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka.  I found her performance thrilling, and full of feeling, employing excellent vocal technique.  The second aria is such a particularly beautiful one, and it was radiantly sung in the difficult Czech language.  Despite this, the enunciation was superb; it was the only aria in the contest not in Italian, English, German or French (there was only one of the latter).

Those magical opening chords from the piano sounded stunning, and Olivia had the power to fulfil expectations.

The last contestant was Katherine McIndoe, who sang ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina by Handel, followed later by ‘Embroidery Aria’ from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.  Strong and secure with good vocal tone, Katherine nevertheless had a few unsure notes in the first aria, and I found her
breathing a little too apparent.  The Britten aria came over very dramatically; it was a fine portrayal of Ellen Orford.

The Patricia Hurley Opera Tours award for the best rendition of a song/aria in Italian went to Madison Nonoa, the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with the most potential to Jamie Henare, the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor (in the whole competition, not just the final) went to Imogen Thirlwall.

The runner-up to the Dame Malvina Major Foundation aria was Chelsea Dolman, and the winner (and of the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup) was Katherine McIndoe.  Congratulations to all the winners, and to The Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society for encouraging young singers and putting on a splendid evening of singing.


Going for it at St.Andrew’s – Te Kōkī Trio

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Te Kōkī Trio


Martin Riseley (violin)
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)
Jian Liu (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace,

Sunday, 6th September

This was a mighty concert experience – here were three musicians bent upon drawing all that they could out of the music and of themselves, resulting in performances of great excitement and intensity. The thrills and spills that inevitably came with such an approach simply added to the visceral nature of the experience, so that, at the end, we all felt we’d seen and heard something alive and real.

In making these opening remarks I’ve no wish to draw any comparisons with any other concerts I’d recently been to, all of which had their own particular qualities and delights. It’s just that, right from the opening measures of the Beethoven Trio with which the Te Kōkī Trio began their concert we were engaged, cheek-by-jowl, with the intensity of it all, right from that first, forceful opening chord. And while Jian Liu’s piano playing was spectacular in its adroitness and velocity, my ear was caught in particular by the detail of the varied dynamic observations and interactions between the players, all patently “listening” to one another, delighting in the observance of the first-movement repeat, and plunging us into a development featuring both dynamic irruptions and lovely harmonic explorations, beautiful colours glowing through the sounds.

The slow movement’s opening brought to mind a number of like themes from the composer’s piano sonatas, a beautifully languid contrasting episode begun by the ‘cello and joined by the violin working its continued magic before the piano took over the reins once more – a subsequent minor-key variation became very orchestral in these players’ hands, after which the piano returned with a more decorative recap of the opening, before a lovely pizzicato-quiet chordal ending. These players then truly relished the scherzo’s high spirits, with its skipping rhythms and strong accents, the performance generating incredible momentum in places (almost a precursor of the Op.135 String Quartet’s near-manic scherzo), tempered by occasional “drone” effects, and a brief, but attractively lyrical “swaying” trio.

That Haydnesque leaping piano figure at the beginning of the finale set the tone for what was to follow – energy, great good humour and lots of surprises (even a suggesting of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody at a couple of points!). The development section involved even more skin and hair flying in places, tempered by more sostenuto string passages – just for a bit of a breather! As for the surprise modulation towards the end – one can imagine the contemporary astonishment this would have caused (“Fit for the madhouse!” exclaimed Carl Maria Von Weber, at one of Beethoven’s similar symphonic divergences), this was tossed off with such easeful nonchalance, that it was the return to the home key which brought forth from us the grins and knowing winks – with the players’ hands and fingers flying over keyboards and fingerboards alike, the music roared to its joyous conclusion.

Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio seemed at the outset very much modelled upon her husband Robert’s manner, the work’s opening theme sombre and tense in true “Schumannesque” style. But thereafter it was Mendelssohn I kept on being reminded of throughout the opening movement, albeit with rather more adventurous modulations – the performers responded to the assured string-writing with strength and focus, the ‘cello often taking the lead, and the piano part never over-dominant (as one might have thought would be the case, from a composer regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe). A wistful, piquant Scherzo followed, the rhythm rather like a dotted-note waltz with a Scotch snap, somewhat “teashop” in manner – I liked the group’s way with the Trio’s hesitant angularities, and how the string lines were floated so gracefully overhead.

Again, the finale’s sombre, somewhat anxious opening melody recalled Robert, the cello playing counterpointing the violin’s and piano’s presentation of the theme, before the piano picked up the tonal weight of the music and launched into a fugal passage, most convincingly “grown” from what had come before – the players really dug into the textures, before the piano again took the lead, returning to the opening, catching once again the music’s sobriety, but allowing a second subject some Mendelssonian grace and charm. These musicians also knew how to generate physical excitement, throughout a coda which gathered together and built up a mood of defiant certainty and even triumph at the end – a most attractive work, as presented here.

Rarely has one composer so openly acknowledged another’s influence on a specific work as Ravel did of Saint-Saens regarding his Piano Trio. The younger composer greatly admired his older compatriot’s resourceful use of the differing qualities of each individual instrument, and strove to emulate his example. Unlike many of his contemporaries such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Prokofiev, all of whom found the Piano Trio medium posed too many difficulties, Ravel was determined to tackle its challenges. He planned the work well in advance, and at one stage told a friend that he had “finished the Trio, except for its themes”! – which meant that he had worked out the piece’s architecture and structure before focusing on the actual content.

Right from the beginning there could be no doubt as to the identity of the composer – such a distinctive sound-world, however in thrall the latter might have been to anybody else’s example!  Jian Liu’s magical playing of the “Basque” theme straightaway evoked Ravel’s characteristic other-worldliness, the strings in octaves adding strands of atmosphere to the ambience while keeping the textures tightly-focused. Even the tumble-down agitations had a light, feathery quality, as did the beautifully floated second subject, begun by the violin and limpidly accompanied by the other instruments – so lullaby-like, ethereal and tender. The players brought out the music’s ritualistic beauty, a dream-like ceremony, underlined by magical arpeggiations from the piano – gestures of transformation by wonderment! And, the movement’s end was pure enchantment, with sostenuto strings singing over softly chiming piano notes – the music here almost bewitching itself.

A playful, piquant scherzo movement alternated between surging impulses and more-or-less even-keeled trajectories throughout, the title Pantoum, somewhat obliquely referring to a type of Malayan poetry used by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, rendered by Ravel in terms of musical structure (too hard to grasp for a bear of little brain such as I!) But the sounds! – by turns colourful flecks and scraps of phrases, and then exuberantly sweeping dance-steps in 3/4 time, followed a wonderful central section where firstly the piano, then the strings fitted themselves into the same rhythmic pattern with a graceful 4/2 chorale-like melody.  What freedom! – what colour!  – and what abandonment in the performance!

And what a contrast with the following Passacaille, Jian Liu’s  deep-throated piano-only opening building gradually to a rich and ritualistic outpouring of dignified emotion from all three instrumentalists, before the two string-players were left to take the music back to the depths from whence it came, handing the sombre lines back to the piano for a kind of return-to-the-source conclusion.

This having been buried deeply the finale straightaway found its antithesis in light and air, a wonderful kaleidoscope of impressions at the beginning, filled with those characteristic Ravelian impulses of colours and distinctive ambiences. From these beginnings the musicians drove the sounds unerringly through episodes of confluence and contrast – in places, tremendous attack from both Martin Riseley and Inbal Megiddo, along with great and forthright playing from Jian Liu. We thrilled, for instance, to those ringing mid-movement declamations from the keyboard, and were nonchalantly disarmed by the most beautifully murmured string trills, their dovetailing building up once again to some tumultuous tumblings of energy and well-being that carried us along in a Rimbaud-like “savage parade”.

At the end we were overwhelmed by a sense of these three musicians having risked all to bring about the music’s fruition, and triumphed – a great experience!