Admirable performances in Wellington Regional Aria Contest

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions
(under auspices of Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society )

Aria Final
Contestants: Clare Hood, Olivia Sheat, Sophie Sparrow, Alexandra Gandionco, Alicia Cadwgan, Joe Hadlow, Will King, Beth Goulstone
Chief piano accompanist: Catherine Norton
Compère: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 26 August 2018, 7 pm

Once upon a time, aria contests, as a part of a pattern of performing arts competitions, flourished in every city and many smaller towns throughout New Zealand.  There were aria competitions in both Wellington and the Hutt Valley, part of the pattern of competitions that also included instrumental music as well as dance and drama.

My first ‘professional’ contact with music was in my Upper Sixth year at Wellington College, with a casual back-stage role in the instrumental section of the Wellington Competitions Society which, for a fortnight, occupied both the main auditorium and the concert chamber of the Town Hall. Like anyone involved in the performing arts, it gave me a taste for, perhaps infected me with a love of performance generally. And though I never aspired to push my piano and cello playing to a level that might have had me involved in competitions, I was seduced by the atmosphere.

The Wellington Society fell on hard times and was wound up in the 1970s, and many other societies, including several in major cities have disappeared; but the Hutt Valley Competitions Society struggled on, fairly successfully. There is a parent body called PACANZ (Performing Arts Competitions Association of New Zealand), with about 60 ‘performing arts competitions’ and many other societies devoted to particular performing arts. About 24 of them seemed to include music in their range of activities.

The main prize in the Hutt contest was the Evening Post Aria Prize, funded by paper, and as the Post’s music critic, I performed the dual job of presenting the cheque to the winner in the Lower Hutt Little Theatre and then dashing back to the news room to get my review filed by midnight. But shortly after the merger of the Post with The Dominion, the association was ended.

It was wonderful that the newspaper’s role was soon picked up by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation’s sponsorship with a $4000 first prize, which continues. And it’s also a distinct advantage that it now takes place in Wellington City.

Adjudicator Richard Greager chose eight finalists from the 19 entrants who had been performing over the last three days: six women and two men. All the women were sopranos, the two men baritones. It might have made judging easier; it might not have…. The main accompanist was the splendid Catherine Norton, whose acutely judged, often brilliant accompaniments constantly caught the ear.

Four of the contestants had sung in the recent production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo from Eternity Opera; Joe Haddow sang Charon and Pluto in that opera; and he was a semi-finalist in the recent Lexus Song Quest. Last year he sang The Forrester in The Cunning Little Vixen (New Zealand School of Music). Here, he was awarded the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor, having sung Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni with stylish wit, and Philip II’s deeply moving lament, ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ from Verdi’s Don Carlo; one of Verdi’s most profound expressions of self-doubt, in grieving, well modulated tones.

Last year Will King and Alexandra Gandionco also had lead parts in the NZSM’s Cunning Little Vixen and both sang in the recent Orfeo: King in the title role, Gandianco as Euridice. This evening King was named winner of the Dame Malvina Major Aria, which comes with the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup; from his role in this year’s Orfeo, he chose ‘Possente spirto’ for this evening, with beautiful ornamentation and admirable characterisation. Later he sang ‘Hai già vinta la causa’ expressing the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her marriage. It was simply a most accomplished, spirited performance, and there remained little chance that he was not about to be named the contest winner.

Alexandra Gandionco sang the important (male) role of Gold-Spur, The Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen last year, and here she sang ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’ from Fidelio and ‘Je suis encore tout étourdie’ from Massenet’s Manon. Her voice is an attractive, flexible instrument and her demeanour and gestures very comfortable.

Olivia Sheat had principal roles in Eternity Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro last year, while she sang the prominent role of Proserpine in Orfeo this year. In the evening contest she sang the aria ‘Chi cede al furor’ from Handel’s Serse, and The Song to the Moon from Rusalka (in Czech). She is in good control of phrasing, keenly aware of emotions and sense, and with a lively stage presence.

Alicia Cadwgan had sung Susanna in Wanderlust Opera’s send-up, ‘other’ Marriage of Figaro last year, Her arias this evening were ‘The trees on the mountains’ from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and the famous aria from Bellini’s Sonnambula – ‘Ah, non credea mirati … ah, non giunge’; warm timbre, a voice comfortable at the top, and an attractive theatrical personality: the Bellini is a taxing aria that demands singular, contrasting emotions and technical talents.

Runner-up in this year’s contest was Sophie Sparrow, and she also won the Patricia Hurley Opera Tours Award. She was another soprano with an attractive voice, a reasonably disciplined top, singing Blonde’s taxing aria, ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit…’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later, the familiar aria from Handel’s Alcina, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, emerging as one of the better singers in the coloratura class with her flurries of startling notes.

Soprano Clare Hood, who had the first slot in the evening’s performances, also sang the same Entführing aria, well projected with nice dynamic variety, and then Olympia’s brilliant ‘Doll’s’ aria, from The Tales of Hoffmann. It was a good fit with her voice. And Beth Goulstone chose arias by Mozart and Bizet: ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte: Despina’s advice on seduction for the two female victims of the amorous test that is the opera’s concern. And from Les pêcheurs de perles, Leïla’s lovely ‘Comme autrefois’: even voice, expressive tone, good French; it was a very nice aria to end the evening with.

The prize announcements at the end caused me to make a mistake about the winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Prize for  ‘the young aria entrant with the most potential’. The name I heard and recorded was Cadwgen. I couldn’t hear very accurately, as I was seated near the back, but had no doubt that it was Alicia Cadwgen (not a common name), as recorded in the programme, and who did indeed sing as I recorded above. I had no reason to doubt that Alicia was among the prize winners. 

I am told however that the winner of that prize was in fact Micaela Cadwgen who was not among the eight finalists who sang on Sunday evening. It’s a pity Micaela’s place in the contest had not been specifically mentioned for the benefit of those who were not personally acquainted with the contestants, and would have concluded, even if they had momentary uncertainty about hearing the first name correctly, that it was indeed the singer who took part on the evening. 

I am embarrassed at having been so misled. 

A feature of the contest in the past couple of years has been the engagement of the talented Georgia Jamieson Emms as compère, giving a pithy, knowledgeable precis of each opera, with her own irreverent translation of the words such as in the Catalogue Aria in Don Giovanni, of Despina’s seduction advice to her two virtuous young friends in Così fan tutte and the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her wedding in The Marriage of Figaro.  The contest can use all such enlivening contributions to increase interest.

There has been an interesting shift in the music chosen by contestants: the name Puccini does not appear, and Verdi, only once. Five contestants chose Mozart and Handel appeared twice; otherwise, composers ranged between Monteverdi and Carlisle Floyd 400 hundred years later.

Since I have been hearing the contests since the late 1980s, I have to say that the standard has risen dramatically: there was really no singer who wasn’t really up to good performance level. In any case, it’s a very worthwhile and enjoyable evening’s music, enlivened particularly by the competitive element.


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.

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.


Plentiful talent at Wellington’s Aria Contest courtesy Hutt Valley Competitions Society

Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society

Aria Final, 2014

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 7 September 2014, 7 pm

The adjudicator at this year’s senior vocal competitions was José Aparicio, from Hawke’s Bay.  The aria competition attracted a record 23 entries, and eight finalists were called, rather than the usual six. The performers were all of a high standard, and the size of the audience was greater than it has sometimes been for this annual event.

Mark Dorrell accompanied all the finalists except one, in his usual splendid fashion; Tamara Buckland was accompanied by Catherine Norton – it was good to see the latter back in action in New Zealand after study overseas.

The concert was divided into two halves, with the competitors singing, in the same order, an aria in each half.

Compèring the evening was Georgia Jamieson Emms, summarising the plot of each opera for the audience.  Throughout, she gave us introductions that were witty and well-expressed, of just the right length.  Not only did she inform the audience, her ebullient turns of phrase must have helped to put the contestants at ease.

The evening opened with the rich, powerful voice of Tamara Buckland singing an aria from Massenet’s Werther. Buckland’s French was excellent, and she expressed the sentiments of the aria well.

Elisabeth Harris is dramatic both in appearance and voice; her low notes in “Give him this orchid” from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia were full of delicious timbre.  This was a difficult aria, with a very wide vocal range; the drama was all there in Harris’s face and voice. All in all, it was a very fine performance.  Another Britten aria was next: “The embroidery aria” from Peter Grimes.  The grim story was put over with very clear English words by Rebecca Howan.  Her voice has a lovely quality of unforced clarity.

Hannah Jones also sang Gounod’s famous “Jewel” aria, and acted it out in gesture and facial expression.  Her tone was very pleasing, though it was lost a little on the lowest notes and she sang slightly sharp at times, early on.  This performance was also quite fast, but Jones was better able to manage the tempo.  Many words needed more projection.

Olivia Sheat proved to be the possessor of a lovely voice.  What with her clear words, the fact that her low notes were as clear as her high ones and her gorgeous rendition of the beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka by Dvořák, with its long-breathed notes.  I was very impressed.  She has great stage presence, and alone among the performances, I found her singing of this wonderful aria moving.

Katherine McIndoe’s performance of Mozart’s “Ah, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute was excellent, and she conveyed the mood well through her voice, but her face was completely bland, and she was a shade flat once or twice.  Finally, the sole male in the contest, Christian Thurston (who came third in the recent Lexus Song Quest final) sang “Avant de quitter ces lieux”, another venture into Gounod’s Faust.  His fine baritone was rich, and he gave a splendid performance.

After the break, we heard “Song to the Moon” again.  Once more, Tamara Buckland made a great sound, but occasionally sustained notes did not stay on pitch.

Elisabeth Harris sang “O ma lyre immortelle” from Sappho by, yes, Gounod.  The long legato lines were carried beautifully.  This aria also exploited her excellent range and dramatic skills (and thrills).  Rebecca Howan didn’t quite reach the standard of her first aria, but she shows promise. “O war’ ich schon mit dir vereint” from Fidelio by Beethoven was perhaps a little too demanding for a young singer.

Hannah Jones followed with “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale by Donizetti.  This gave her the opportunity for good facial and musical expression, since it is humorous in its effect.  The words needed to be clearer through being projected more, but it was a fine performance in other respects.  Olivia Sheat gave another attractive performance, full of character and nuance, this time with Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème.  She told the story that Musetta was conveying, and had me smiling.

Katherine McIndoe made a more accomplished and involving performance this time, of the difficult aria “No word from Tom”, from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.  To end the evening’s singing, Christian Thurston sang “Per me giunto… O Carlo ascolta” from Verdi’s Don Carlos.  As probably the most experienced singer in the group, it was appropriate that he was the only one to sing Verdi.  He evinced great breath control, but I found some of his notes rather muddied.

Some words from the adjudicator were not all easily heard; unfortunately he did not use the microphone, so I missed most of them.  Awards were: 1st prize of $4000 from the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup, to Christian Thurston; 2nd prize $1000 from the New Zealand Opera Society, to Elisabeth Harris. The Robin Dumbell Cup for the singer with the most potential went to Olivia Sheat; the Rokfire Cup for most outstanding competitor throughout the senior vocal classes, to Katherine McIndoe. The Jenny Wollerman award of $200 for the best rendition of a song or aria in French was won by Hannah Jones, and the $200 Patricia Hurley Opera Tours award for the best song or aria in Italian by 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.


Big Sing for a big occasion

Wellington Regional Big Sing Gala Concert (New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festivals)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday, 6 June 2013

More choirs from the region performed in the two gala concerts this year: 42 choirs from 22 schools; last year thirty choirs from nineteen schools performed.  It is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it, and that some have student conductors and accompanists.  The fact that all the choirs learnt all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.

Another factor in the success of the evening (the second of two gala concerts) was the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience.

Unlike the protocol for the National Finale (to be held in a couple of months’ time), the judges do not choose the item to be sung by each choir at the regional finale, from the three items presented in the daytime sessions.  The result for the regional finale is that the majority of the choirs choose modern popular items, rather than those that might be classified by the rather unsatisfactory title of ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ music.

Neither of these terms should be taken to be totally descriptive; there is much good choral music being composed right now, and over the past 40 years, including by Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, and New Zealanders David Hamilton, Anthony Ritchie, Gareth Farr and others – and some of this was represented in the choices made.  So much of this is neither classical nor serious, but it is broadly in the Western music tradition, and not part of the popular repertoire.

I do not feel equipped with the experience to judge the relative merits of the pieces of popular repertoire chosen by the choirs.  I do know that I found the best choral singing to be mainly in those few pieces of ‘classical’ repertoire that were performed.  One problem with quite a number of the popular pieces was that they sat low in the voices.  It is not easy for young singers to project notes at the bottom of their registers, nor does it make great listening, because the tone is not as pleasing as it would be in music set higher.  Suitability of the music for the range of the performers’ voices would surely be one of the criteria considered by adjudicators.  This is not to say that the voices were not well-trained; for the most part they were.

Tawa College’s Dawn Chorus, a very large choir, opened the programme.  The criticism about the pitch level of the piece chosen certainly applied in this case.  The song ‘Fix You’ was accompanied by electric guitar, which couldn’t be heard by the upstairs audience, and electronic keyboard, which came over as a buzzing noise.

The next Tawa College choir, Harmony with Spirit (girls only) chose a piece that was also too low (‘Jesus, what a beautiful name’).  The style of the song, and of the solo, I found unappealing.  The other choir from Tawa College, Blue Notes, was very skilled.  ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap was quite an intricate piece, and was sung with great control and excellent effect – though it, too, started very low in the voices.

Heretaunga College’s choir knew the words of ‘Sellotape’ and sang pretty well, but they did not project the story of the song to the audience – it was all a bit reticent.

Beethoven would have had a shock at the pop version of ‘Joyful, joyful’ based on the final movement of his ninth symphony, sung by Wellington East Girls’ College Multi Choir.  Conducted and accompanied by students, it began as a rather slow rendition of the choral part of that work, but it became a rap and pop version, with a Pasifika slant.

The Senior Choir from the same school produced another low-voice number: ‘Forget You’ by Bruno Mars.  A student conductor led the choir, and teacher (Brent Stewart) and students provided a three-piece instrumental backing.

Palmerston North Boys’ High School’s OK Chorale has always done well at The Big Sing.  The 16 voices produced accompanying noises as well as singing, in ‘You Oughta be in Love’ by Dave Dobbyn, in a special arrangement.  The solo was a little disappointing, but rhythm and expression were strong.

Samuel Marsden Collegiate’s Senior Chamber Choir sang a piece by New Zealander Craig Utting: ‘Monument’, from a set of songs, the words by Alistair Campbell.  This was partly accompanied, partly unaccompanied.  Good tone in this very effective setting was a little spoiled by wobbly intonation in places.  The piece certainly deserves being taken up widely; being for treble voices only, there should be plenty of opportunity for this.

The same school’s Ad Summa Chorale, a student-led choir, performed Adiemus by Karl Jenkins.  I have to confess I usually find this composer’s music somewhat trite, and so it was on this occasion.  The singing was perfectly adequate

Next came one of the evening’s high points: Wellington College and Wellington Girls’ College Combined Choir sang Fauré’s beautiful Cantique de Jean Racine, with organ.  This was a good effort.  The singing had clarity and was expressive, the voices at the top being particularly fine.

Another work with organ, played by Michael Fletcher, followed after the interval, from the same school’s huge Teal choir.  The Kyrie from Missa St. Aloysii by Michael Haydn would not have been easy to memorise.  Pitch was not always spot on, but overall, the choir did well.

Nicola Sutherland had a busy time directing four choirs all together this time from the piano.  The Year 9 Choir from the same school sang ‘If I only had a Brain’, which included a lot of actions (as indeed did a number of other items in the programme).  There was not the same level of projection from this choir.  The last choir from Wellington Girls’ College, Teal Voices, sang Vivaldi’s ‘Domine Fili Unigenite’, from his Gloria.  It was performed with organ and cellist Paul Mitchell.  The pronunciation of the Latin words was better than that to be heard from many adult choirs, and the cohesion of the choir created a very pleasing performance.

Kapiti College’s choir sang a Cole Porter number, ‘Every Time we say Goodbye’; quite a difficult piece, but done well, with attractive sound and excellent intonation.

Marsden Collegiate, Whitby, was not really up to the standard of most of the other choirs.  Their ‘Arithmetic’ by Brooke Fraser had not only a student accompanist but also a student violinist.

Bernard’s Men from St. Bernard’s College produced a good body of sound, including a solo, in Ruru Karaitiana’s well-known ‘Blue Smoke’.  There were some small boys in the choir as well as tall seniors.  I couldn’t hear any soprano sounds, though the young boys were certainly opening and closing their mouths.  The whole was well-presented, though perhaps a little uncommitted.

An excellent choice for a junior choir was Sacred Heart’s ‘The African Medley’ arranged by Julian Raphael.  The student conductor (and another student on drums) gained exemplary projection from the choir.  The same school’s Senior Choir sang Gareth Farr’s ‘Tangi te kawekawea’.  The choir did not sound very secure – perhaps the work was too difficult for them.  Nor was the blend as good as most of the choirs demonstrated.

Two Wairarapa choirs combined as Viva Camerata: Rathkeale and St. Matthew’s Senior College.  They sang Steven Rapana’s arrangement of ‘Le Masina E’, a Polynesian piece, accompanied by a wooden drum and another percussion instrument made of a rolled up Island mat.  The choir began strongly after a solo invocation.  There was no conductor, yet the timing was excellent, as was the choral tone.  Along with actions, the singers had projection plus!

The final item was from St. Patrick’s College (town) and Chilton St. James combined choir, PatChWork.  This was a case of keeping the best till last.  New Zealander Chris Artley has composed a number of choral pieces, and ‘I will lift up mine eyes’ was an outstanding one, set for choir, organ (played by Janet Gibbs) and trumpet.  Again parts of the piece were a little low for young voices, but the whole performance was projected well, and performed with unity and precision of words.  For me, it was the highlight of the evening, not least for the wonderful trumpet playing of a student from Chilton St. James.

Preceding the award of certificates to every  participating choir, the adjucator, Nick Richardson from Auckland spoke briefly, urging the participants to carry on singing when they leave school.  Yet the style of much of the music performed would not necessarily lead to this.  Some might form pop or rock groups perhaps.  Then there are Barbershop and Sweet Adeline groups.  Most youth and adult choirs do not sing the repertoire we heard; most of them perform what could loosely be called ‘classical’ repertoire, though they may include lighter items.

Various cups and awards were presented – too many to enumerate here.  They will doubtless be listed on The Big Sing’s website.  Suffice to say that PatChWork won the award for best performance of a New Zealand composition.


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.

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.

Soprano Barbara Graham wins major French vocal prizes

The New Zealand School of Music website reveals that Wellington soprano Barbara Graham has won important French music prizes, not long after her arrival to study and audition in Paris.

Soprano Barbara Graham , an alumnus of NZSM, won both the French Melodie Prize and First Prize in the Festival de Musique et de langue français – des mots et des notes –  a competition for French language and music in Paris. With nine singers in the final, eight of them French, this was quite a coup for the Kiwi girl! Barbara was invited to stay on and sing a concert with a Parisian orchestra and will give two more Paris concerts with the orchestra in January. One of the judges told her that her French was better than the French singers!

Barbara also came second in the big Symphonie d’Automne competition in Macon with judges including Rudolph Piernay and Teresa Berganza. She didn’t realise she had won something until she heard her name, walked out on stage and was handed some wine and an envelope marked ‘Second’. She said she nearly dropped onto the floor with surprise.

As NZSM Classical Voice tutor Richard Greager points out: “With literally thousands of sopranos vying for recognition in Europe, for Barbara to achieve these results is quite simply outstanding.”

Alliance Française Concours de la Chanson


(French Singing Competition)

Wellington June 19-20, 2010

In association with the Cultural Service of the French Embassy, NZ School of Music and NZ Opera Society.

To celebrate the international Fête de la Musique (World Music Day), the Alliance Française Wellington invites entries from singers aged 18- 30 years for the inaugural Concours de la Chanson to be held in Wellington the weekend of 19-20 June, 2010. The competition comprises two categories: modern chanson and classical mélodie. A prize of $1500 will be awarded to the winner of each category, consisting of $1000 plus a scholarship of two terms’ tuition at the Alliance Française Wellington. Entries close June 6, 2010. Information and entry forms available at


1. The competition is open to solo singers aged 18-30 years. Only accompaniment by a single live instrument is permitted. No recorded accompaniments.

2. All songs must be sung in French.

3. There are two categories of competition:

i) modern chanson as epitomised by the work of popular singers like Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Barbara, Léo Ferré and Serge Gainsbourg.

ii) classical mélodie, that is, classical art song written in French for solo voice and piano in the style of French composers of the 19th century or later such as Berlioz, Massenet, Duparc, Chausson, Chabrier, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.

4. Entrants may enter both categories.

5. Entrants will be judged on accuracy of language and appropriate style for the genre as well as singing performance.

6. An elimination round may be held on the afternoon of Saturday 19th June.

7. Final at St Andrews on the Terrace, 7.30pm Sunday 20 June.

8. 1st prize in each category is $1000 plus a scholarship for two terms’ tuition at Alliance Française Wellington (not transferable).

9. Enquiries phone 04 475-9909


By June 6, 2010 by post, email to or delivered to our Wellington office with the following details:

Name, date of birth, address, telephone, and email.

Teacher’s name and contact details if applicable.

Title of song, composer and approximate length.