Politically coloured vocal contest settles the score between baritones and bass-baritones

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert
The First Annual Battle for the Barithrone, presented by S-Crew

Contestants: James Henare and Joe Haddow (bass-baritones) and Will King and William McElwee (baritones)
Heather Easting (piano)

Songs and arias by: Jerome Kern, trad., Sullivan, Sondheim, Cilea, Verdi and Mozart

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 16 November, 12:15 pm

Both Rosemary Collier and I found ourselves at what turned out to be an unexpectedly amusing recital. We were both held up by late trains and non-functioning lifts and so missed whatever introductory remarks might have illuminated the nature of the ‘contest’. So disadvantaged, we decided to pool our impressions in the hope of making some sense of the unusual scenario that was being enacted.

However, the four biographical notes gave some clues about the issues dominating it.

Former tenor William McElwee was attempting to defeat ruling baritone title-holder Will King while bass-baritones Jamie Henare and Joe Haddow were competing as master and pupil.

An uncredited Simon Christie (disguised as ‘S-Crew’) acted as commentator and, on occasion, referee and conciliator in the vicious struggles for ascendancy.

The only candidate properly dressed for the occasion was McElwee – black tie in the noon-day sun (and rain). Others trusted to their talents, best described as ‘barihunkishness’.

There were four rounds: Spirituals, Alliances, Comic Duets and Arias

Will and William sang, competitively, though equally committed, ‘Old man river’, demonstrating the challenging nature of McElwee’s elevation (or descent) from tenor to baritone.

Another river ruled the two bass-baritones, as Joe Haddow and Jamie Henare dreamed of freedom across the ‘Deep River’; the latter singer displayed some evidence of miscasting – is he in fact a bass?

Three of the contestants entered into an obscure G&S triple-alliance, ‘With wily brain’, for the two baritones and a solitary bass-baritone – Haddow. The words might have been a travesty of the text in Utopia Limited: the penultimate collaboration between increasingly antagonistic librettist and composer. It’s a pretty odd subject for an opera of any kind – a satire on the recent enactment of a law creating the limited liability company – the triumph of free-market capitalism and laissez-faire.

Sullivan featured again in the Comic Duets class, with ‘Kind Captain’ from HMS Pinafore engaging the two bass-baritones. It might have been a role for the confused by-stander to award the laurel.

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods provided the arena for the contest between baritones William and Will in ‘Agony reprise’; the voices blended excellently well, not, presumably, what the venomous contestants intended.

In the Arias round William McElwee explored obscure opera again with an aria from Cilea’s ‘other opera’, not Adriana Lecouvreur, but L’arlesiana’ (the opera version of the Daudet play that Bizet wrote wonderful music for). The black tie was clearly designed to sway the judges, though his fine voice might have been enough, in spite of its tenorial traces. Was his rendition perhaps a little too loud for the fine acoustic of St Andrew’s? However, his high notes and phrasing were exemplary.

Jamie Henare remained with Italian in ‘Il lacerate spirto’ from Simon Boccanegra, the great opera that the Festival bravely mounted in 2000, with a splendid Vladimir Vaneev singing Henare’s vengeful role of Fiesco. A promising Verdian here, especially with an attractive voice of such natural bass character. His words were well articulated and he brought emotional colour to his voice; his deeper notes were thrilling.

Baritone Will King, now vying for the crown as King Will, accepted here the lesser nobility of Mozart’s Count, determined to beat Figaro in a final round to get the first go, as it were, at Susanna. Will’s voice carried the steel though his demeanour could have expressed greater determination. His singing and his Italian were outstanding, especially considering the fast tempo.

And then Joe Haddow, again in Mozart, with a great robust voice, leafs through Leporello’s Catalogue, allowing his voice to dim slightly, with fine natural acting. He used his resonant voice dramatically in an accomplished manner with plenty of light and shade; a fine Leporello!

Unscheduled, all then sang the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’, in Russian, heavy in Jamie’s splendid bass solo but with lighter colours from the higher baritone registers of Will and William.

But remember, this is a contest, like the one across the Pacific a week ago. Referee Christie was on the phone to the invisible judges and announced the election (er… singing contest) result, generally approved, but a few seconds later another call came in, overturning the popular vote and confirming a shocking upset result from the Singing Electoral College: William McElwee the winner, Jamie second, and Joe and Will 3rd equal: Chaos!!!

Regardless of result, we were delighted hear four fine voices, all different. Heather Easting’s accompaniments were classy and conspicuously supportive.

One thought on “Politically coloured vocal contest settles the score between baritones and bass-baritones

  1. William McElwee says:

    Hi Lindis, thank you for your wonderful review, very glad you enjoyed our Battle, and glad you entered into the spirit of it. Since you missed the introduction, I quote the script:
    Simon: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the First Annual Battle for the Barithrone!!! I’m Simon Christie, your MC for this spectacular event. Some of you might not realize there exists in Wellington a royal seat of highest splendour, the Barithrone, held by the finest young baritone in the city. However, since King Christian Thurston the first abdicated, there has been a yawning power vacuum. So today, two baritones and two bass-baritones compete for the title of Bariking. With the title come important bragging rights, and the right to use the Baritone Claw with extreme prejudice. The judging will be by popular response. We have a secret plant in the audience with a seismometer, measuring the applause according to the Richter scale. So, vote with your hands! Now without further ado, it’s time for the first round in this historical competition, the spirituals round!
    As for S-CREW, it in fact did not refer to Simon, who I neglected to include in the programme – an oversight on my part, it refers to the Singers’ Research Ensemble Wellington, a venture started this year with the purpose of creating performance opportunities and building collaborative connections for young singers in Wellington. S-CREW had its first performance outings in two fundraising concerts they put on for Mental Health Awareness Week in October.
    Thank you again for coming to our important event,

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