Annual Wellington Aria Contest final showcases some fine talent

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions: Final
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competition Society)

Adjudicator: Martin Snell
Finalists: Laura Loach, Elyse Hemara, Emily Mwila, Sophie Sparrow, Frederick Jones, Pasquale Orchard, Olivia Sheat, Joe Haddow
Accompanists: Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell
Commentator: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 September, 7:30 pm

This year eighteen singers entered for the annual aria contest (it used to be the Hutt Valley Aria, when there was also a Wellington-based contest, run by the Wellington Competitions Society which died in the 1970s).

Some names were more familiar to me than others. I had only recalled Laura Loach in a smaller role in last year’s Gondoliers from Wellington G&S Light Opera, but couldn’t recall her voice. Her first aria was ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca in which her large voice emerged both accurately but perhaps with rather more ferocity than pathos. Her second piece was Agathe’s beautiful ‘Leise, leise fromme Weise’ from Der Freischütz; it calls for quite marked contrasts, as it moves from the recitative-like ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’, to the aria proper. Her voice was under nice control, even and subdued, then preparing a good contrast as the intensity builds to the big tune from the overture: ‘All meine Pulse schlagen, Und das Herz wallt ungestüm…’ which I thought was really fine.

Elyse Hemara’s first aria was one of Massenet’s loveliest from his little known Hérodiade, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, that one only hears in anthologies by the likes of Kiri and Angela Gheorghiu. Intonation was a bit shaky to begin, but as she gained confidence there was sensitivity, and a sense that she meant what she was saying. Here she was in a quite different sort of role, having heard her as Lady Billows in the excerpt from Albert Herring a couple of weeks ago; but just as comvincing.

Like Massenet’s Hérodiade, I Vespri siciliani is not one of Verdi’s best known operas, but Elena’s fifth act aria, ‘Mercé, dilette amiche’, known as the ‘Bolero’, stands out in a somewhat laborious, if essentially Verdian score. Elyse, now in a rich deep purple dress, hinting at Roman aristocracy, shone in this bravura aria (no matter the missing top note), supported by Mark Dorrell’s scintillating piano.

I’d been impressed by Emily Mwila who sang Zerlina in both casts of Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni: made for her. I was impressed that she’d tackle the only pre-Mozart aria in the Finals and she succeeded in expressing dignified grief in Handel’s Giulio Cesare (‘Piangero’); slightly desperate in the faster middle section, with accurate bravura flourishes.

For her second item, Emily also departed from the Italian repertory to which almost all the other finalists confined themselves: ‘Je veux vivre’, or the Waltz Song as it used to be called, from Roméo et Juliette. I admired Emily’s taste in dress, a subdued brocaded yellow. With teen-aged delirium she almost danced through her excitement at attending the ball where she’ll meet Romeo for the first time. Fully in command of her technique, it confirmed her radiant soubrette flair.

For the last year or so Georgia Jamieson Emms has introduced each item with amusing and pertinent remarks and sometimes a flippant precis of an opera plot which have added richly to the audience’s enjoyment. Her remarks about obscure works were particularly engaging.

I hadn’t come across the fourth finalist, Sophie Sparrow, before. Accompanied with colour and subtlety by Catherine Norton, she unearthed an aria from Mozart’s youthful La finta giardiniera, which I seem to recall, inconsequentially, as an opera in which Malvina Major had a principal role in the late 1980s. It was at La Monnaie, the national opera in Brussels, when her career was seriously taking off. ‘Gema la tortorella’ is sung by one Sandrina, the name assumed by the ‘fake gardener’. In truth, as Georgina hinted, it’s one of the more absurd opera plots, but contains lovely music; I wondered whether Miss Sparrow had picked an aria about a bird (a dove) deliberately (better known of course is Antonia’s aria in The Tales of Hoffmann ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’, and perhaps Stephano’s ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). A fine bird simulation, with high staccato notes.

Her second choice was from an American opera that has become reasonably well known in the United States: Douglas Moore’s 1956 work, Baby Doe (not a nice story). It revealed a voice under very good control, again much of it lying high yet comfortably within her range, without becoming attenuated.

Sophie Sparrow was placed as runner-up by adjudicator Martin Snell.

Frederick Jones has a tenor voice of considerable purity and emotional range. I’ve come across him at the Opera School in Whanganui and in a couple of productions (Il Corsaro from the NZSM in 2013 and Der Rosenkavalier from Opera at Days Bay). He stuck to arias that exploited both his command of major tenor roles as well as strongly contrasted emotions : great happiness in the case of Alfredo in La traviata, and despair at becoming victim of a stupid masculine honour code in the case of Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

That he wore a dinner suit for both, in contrast to all the other singers who sought to match dress with the roles, clearly did him no harm. His voice was refined and polished and created, with limited hand or facial gestures, the emotion of each aria. Even so, it seemed to me that Alfredo’s words ‘bollenti spiriti’ lacked much real ecstasy. Lensky’s aria however, was full of helpless grief.

Jones was awarded the main prize, the $4000 Dame Malvina Major Foundation Wellington Aria Prize.

Pasquale Orchard has sung in at least a couple of G&S Light Opera’s productions; and she also reached for Der Freischütz, this time the aria from Agathe’s cousin Ännchen, ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’, her effort to relieve Agathe’s anxiety about Max’s chances in the shooting contest. She was in cheerful peasant gear, a green top and pink apron and she sang with even tone, investing it with a similar spirit.

Pasquale also sang Norina’s spunky aria from Don Pasquale (no pun intended). ‘Quel guardo il cavalieri’. Though she sang excellently, her voice showed more brilliance and accuracy than beauty in her high register.

Pasquale Orchard won the Rokfire prize for the most outstanding singer overall (strangely, a prize that seemed not to be mentioned in the programme).

She and the next singer, Olivia Sheat, had sung together as Frasquita and Mercedes in the Card Scene from Carmen at the NZSM opera excerpts concert 10 days ago.

Olivia Sheat’s first item was from Peter Grimes: the Embroidery Aria where Ellen sees the jersey that she had embroidered for Grimes’s apprentice who is presumed drowned. With every sign of natural dramatic talent, she captured the vein of confusion and enigmatic concern that invest not just this episode but the whole opera; her choice was no doubt a mark of her training at the New Zealand School of Music.

For her second aria Olivia also drew on Faust, with Marguérite’s Jewel Song, in which, with slightly excessive gestures, she displayed a well-supported voice in growing wonderment and susceptibility to the combined forces of avarice and passion.

Finally, Joseph Haddow, who was winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with most potential, sang first ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from I Puritani, and then the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni.

I’d heard him a couple of weeks before singing Mozart’s Figaro in the School of Music’s concert of opera scenes. His is a well-founded baritone, a warm voice with a resonant quality, that handled the bravura aspect of the Bellini’s belcanto role well.

And the final offering of the evening, Leporello’s list of the Count’s conquests, is one of the most quintessential and well known arias. Though he didn’t hold the famous ‘catalogue’ in his hands, the hands and facial gestures, with even a touch of cynical sleeziness at the end were the marks of an instinctive singer.

So, as with every occasion when gifted young singers (and classical musicians in general) perform, one feels deep uneasiness at the ever-increasing numbers of fine young artists facing a steadily declining market, in a society that is led by a purportedly educated class that is largely unlettered and uncultivated in fields that separate the civilised from the barbarians.

In addition to the occasional reference in the above notes, I have to remark on the very supportive and artistically appropriate accompaniments from both Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell.

It may be unorthodox to mention singers that I felt were a bit unlucky not to be named, either those among the Finalists or other entrants whom I’ve heard singing recently. Jamie Henare, heard as Leporello in Don Giovanni last month; Emily Mwila (Zerlina in the same production of Don Giovanni, as well as in the school of music’s recent ‘Scenes from opera’).

Moments in Time – Diedre Irons’ tribute to Judith Clark

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Institute of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand (IRMT)

Judith Clark Memorial Piano Series
Second Recital – Diedre Irons

HAYDN – Sonata Hob.XVI:52 in E-flat Major
DEBUSSY – Suite Bergamasque
LISZT – Sonata in B Minor S.178

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Campus, Victoria University

Sunday, 18th September, 2016

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine Diedre Irons as ever having had another “life” as a person and performing musician, so very much has she become part and parcel of this country’s musical fabric, especially of late in the Wellington region. Now in retirement from her position as Head of Piano Studies at Studies at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, a position she held from 2003 to 2012, she regularly appears in concert, mostly as a chamber musician, but occasionally as a soloist with orchestra, and on the recital platform.

Her career as a performing musician and as a teacher extends from her upbringing in Winnipeg, Canada, through her piano performance studies with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, her subsequent invitation by Serkin to join the Curtis faculty at the conclusion of her studies, and her concertising throughout Canada and the United States as a chamber musician and soloist. She came to New Zealand in 1977, working firstly at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch until 2003, and then in Wellington at the NZSM.

Irons has always sought to put the music before the performer (for this reason she avoided the “piano competition circuit” as a young pianist), though she would, I think, consider the honours that have come her way as much a validation of music as a profession as of her own achievements. She was awarded an MBE for services to music in 1989, and in 2007 she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Music (honoris causa) from Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada ‘in recognition of outstanding contributions in the world of music through superlative achievement as a talented, dedicated and passionate pianist.”

Having been a successor to Judith Clark in the position of Head of Piano Studies at the NZSM, Irons seemed an appropriate choice by dint of that circumstance alone for inclusion as a performer in this series dedicated to the former’s memory, quite apart from her eminence as an executant and interpreter. While on this subject I have to say that I was both thrilled at the choice of artists for the recital “lineup” and somewhat disappointed that an additional place in this stellar gallery of pianists wasn’t found for one of Clark’s most brilliant pupils, Emma Sayers, whose recent return to the recital platform after a long absence was noted and welcomed by Middle C (search “Emma Sayers”)

Such additional conjectures aside, here, then, was Diedre Irons standing before us in the Adam Concert Room, about to present what seemed, on paper, something of a dream recital, consisting of three of the most delectable works in the piano repertoire – Haydn’s final Piano Sonata, Debussy’s beloved “Suite Bergamasque”, and Liszt’s era-defining masterpiece, the B-Minor Piano Sonata. Though presented here most satisfyingly in that order I couldn’t help thinking that each of the three works also represented a different life-stage – Debussy’s youthful, delectable Suite (whose on-going popularity he came to resent in later years), Liszt’s towering, fully-fledged testament to Romanticism in art, conceived in his virtuoso prime, and Haydn’s last and arguably greatest keyboard work, perhaps not dating from his final years but representing a kind of testament of creative endeavour in a particular genre.

“Ages of man” idea or not, Irons simply plunged into the world of each work on its own terms, her music-making as is always the case bristling with characterful connection to the sounds wrought from diverse worlds .  Straightaway, the excitement came with the way she played the first chord of the Haydn Sonata – we were instantly saturated in the warm glow of what seemed at the time like the mother of all E-flat chords, one which instantly anticipated all of those Beethovenian resonances (the “Eroica” Symphony and Variations, the “Emperor” Concerto, and the Fourth Piano Sonata among others), but then, without further ado, took our sensibilities on a truly unique Haydnesque journey – the strength of the pianist’s of flourishes contrasted so tellingly with those playful/wistful sequences that left one open-mouthed at the composer’s seemingly boundless invention, even when following conventions such as the “music-box” mode of the movement’s second theme.

Always a particular delight of Irons’ playing for me has been her all-pervading spontaneity, fuelling an approach which seems to imbue the themes, textures and rhythms of whatever she plays with the feeling of “on-the-spot” creation on the part of both composer and performer – and when that composer, as here, is Haydn, then the “making it up as one goes along” sense of discourse is more than usually heightened. Of course, there are powerful overall creative forces at work behind the scenes, both compositionally and interpretatively, but these were here given such immediacy and theatricality, that we were caught up with the feeling of being present at some kind of fresh exposé, and able to renew our own responses to the music in the process.

I don’t wish to try the reader’s patience by giving a blow-by-blow account of my impressions of Irons’ playing of every phrase (though if I were a piano student I would ponder her sounding of practically every single note, not to produce an imitative effect, but to reflect on her making each phrase, each impulse, each episode “live” in relation to the character of the moment and the effect of the same on the whole….). For my own part I relished her own enjoyment of sequences such as Haydn’s outlandish modulations throughout the movement’s second half – both the reintroduction, in a remote key, of the “music box” sequence, and the harmonic wanderings which led to a disconcerting “luftpause” just before the payoff – what a guy!

In the slow movement, Irons’ filling out of a markedly vocal line seemed to me beautifully shaped and moulded, the “strummed” chords giving the music a minstrel-like, almost bardic character – like a good storyteller would with words, she made us hang upon every one of the composer’s notes. I’d never before noticed quite so strongly how the music seemed to anticipate (again!) Beethoven, in particular his “Tempest” Sonata, with firstly stentorian bass sounds and then distant, echoing resonances at the end.

Irons was certainly one for the teasing repeated-note opening of the finale, and the answering scamperings and somersaultings – she timed the music’s pauses to perfection, setting circumspection against an engaging headstrong energy, keeping us on the edges of our seats with the precarious dancings and unpredictable volatilities of the music, and then transfixing us with the eloquence of the mid-movement declamations, before returning us to the indefatigable energies that whirled the music to its joyous conclusion.

After this, the opening of Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque” seemed even more rich and expansive than was usual, partly due to Irons’ bringing out the music’s amplitude, giving our imaginations so much space in which to range around and about. The succeeding episode made a wistful contrast with the strength and purpose of the opening, while newly-sounded distant echoes fetched up by Irons like new impulses from an old remembrance led to a resplendent return of the opening, each upward surge of tone presenting us with something rich and memorable.

The following Menuet questioned rather than danced its way forwards, its whimsical enquiries gentle rather than insistent, the music’s ambience seemingly intent on gathering up every fragment of tone as it proceeded, the playing emphasising the resonances as strongly as the music’s stately pulsings – what a rich and redolent world of dream-like impressions! Irons alternated rich chordings with glittering flourishes, before gathering up the threads and returning to the music’s processional aspect, gradually allowing the tones and textures to grow in girth and expectation – and then, with an adroitly-placed cadence dissolved the music in wraith-like fashion.

As I’m presently ham-fistedly learning to play “Clair de lune” myself I’m not able to give a dispassionate opinion of Irons’ interpretation, except to say that her playing of the opening’s return after all the central swirling agitations had a lovely “spent” quality which I found very moving, as I did the half-completed reminiscences of the swirling music at the end – too precious to be revisited, but merely acknowledged and then let go. I thought the whole movement jewel-like in its beauty, here, but also “owned”, as one might recall a memory of a lost love or youthful impulse.

Very rarely do I find myself at odds with anything Irons does at the keyboard – so it was a surprise that, in places during the concluding “Passepied”, I found myself wanting more sense of forward momentum, in places, however delicious and insouciant she sometimes made the dance rhythms sound. In line with her playing of the rest of the suite she seemed to me to realise the music more as a memory than a here-and-now experience, and I wondered if her view of the music was, in fact a little too valedictory in certain places, missing a certain impish delight in momentum for its own sake. I was, come to think of it, reminded by her playing here of the conducting style of Sir John Barbirolli (one of my musical heroes), who realised all the music he directed with great warmth and love and care for detail, to the point where, at certain times for the listener, the trees might seem to obscure the sense of a greater forest……..of course, all of this is subjective and valid unto oneself alone (a friend sitting alongside me, for example, was entranced by it all without reservation). At the end we were grateful to Irons for taking us so very unequivocally and magically into her own realm of enchantment.

Having said all of this, what does one then write about the performance of the Liszt Sonata which followed? Afraid of generalising my impressions of it all I scribbled a number of things down as the music’s journey unfolded, which, when reading back, brought forcibly forward the sense of something realised in direct, unreserved, and wholehearted terms – though anybody familiar with Irons’ playing over the years could have written the above, possibly without even attending the concert! But again, from the outset, we felt ourselves thrust into the music’s seething, pulsating body, those portentous bass notes and the alternating descending figures serving notice of the composer’s  intention to explore even the darkest and most forbidding places on this musical journey.

As is well known, Liszt’s scheme with this music was to announce his basic material in no uncertain terms at the work’s beginning before spreading before us an incredible panoply of characterised sequences all of which were derived from these opening motifs. Irons played these basic motifs with richly-focused eloquence, giving them enough room to expand and resonate without compromising their dramatic or theatrical qualities. Then as the motifs were reiterated in their transformed state, each one extending the composer’s range and scope of vision over the widest possible span, she took to these far-flung variants and fleshed them out with the kind of committed advocacy that made Liszt’s grand design come alive, relating and contrasting the disparate thematic elements within a convincing and satisfying whole.

Whatever the prevailing character of the sequence Irons was playing, she was its committed advocate – how beautifully, for instance, she realised the alchemic transformation of the ominous repeated note theme of the opening into what was perhaps the work’s loveliest lyrical melody, complete with what seemed like a nightingale’s song rounding off each declamation. Against this, the volatility of her plunge into the agitations which followed was breathtaking, edge-of-the-seat stuff, designed to give the precarious, hair-raising effect of living dangerously and courting imminent ruin, a process arrested only by the onset of those massive, orchestrally-conceived chords to which she brought all of her strength and amplitude, to monumental effect.

For those who like to think of the work as a manifestation of the Faust legend, the sequence which immediately followed the above could be construed as the scene in the garden between Faust and Gretchen (or Marguerite, if one is thinking of Gounod, of course!).  Irons relished the beautiful lyricism of the recitatives between the lovers, set against the underlying sardonic comments from the watching Mephistopheles, the whole sequence so operatic and theatrical, and yet drawn with such on-going inevitability and over-riding sense of Fate as to heighten one’s sense of tragedy, however much one relishes this brief respite! So when Irons returned to the great chordal theme which seemed to span the work’s structure at that point like a vast, dominating crossbeam, we were alerted as to the transitory nature of youth and beauty and their associated delights, and reminded of the omnipresence of a greater, more resounding and inevitable state of things.

What a task for the pianist, controlling and regulating the ebb and flow of such a resounding and far-reaching musical structure! For here was a reprise of the opening suddenly stealing in and activating a fugue, one which in Iron’s hands gathered momentum and tightened its grip on the music almost to the point of frenzy – a couple of dropped notes and a slight hiatus at one point in the discourse after the fugal lines revert to chordal figurations in the discourse mattered not a whit amid the excitement and tumult generated by her playing! Those transformed motifs having then reappeared and spent their energies, the music’s course was all but run, Irons conveying its exhaustion, desperation, tremulousness, and resignation, as all of the music’s human endeavour seemed to be mocked by Fate (in the person of the Prince of Darkness?) with the return of the work’s sombre opening. But then, those beautiful, chordal pin-pricks of light at the end were played by Irons with such tremulous hope and longing, that one felt salvation of sorts might be possible after all!

Forgive all of these words! – far more important was that sense of something rich and wonderful having been given to us by Diedre Irons’ radiant and heartfelt playing!