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MONTREAL INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION
 
Spring 2012
You can have your Masters Tournaments and your Stanley Cup. Same goes for your Idol shows. This is the competition that matters to me.
 
Every three years, the Montreal International Music Competition features singers. (Other years, pianists and violinists get their turns.)  Singers from anywhere in the world are eligible, as long as they're thirty-three-years-old or younger and are looking to a professional career. What makes this event so exciting is that you're getting a chance to see and hear young singers before they become well known. We all know Renee Flemming and Bryn Terfel can sing well. Here in Montreal you get the chance to make a discovery! Past winners like Measha Brueggergosman (2002)  have gone on to great fame and the 2009 winner, Angela Meade, has recently been making headlines with her performances at the Metropolitan Opera. The jury this year includes such big names as Renata Scotto, Sir Thomas Allen and Canada's Edith Wiens. You can catch charming, spontaneous videos of this year's twenty-three participants, chosen by blind adjudication from a vast array of submissions, on the MIMC's website: www.concoursmontreal.ca
 
 
June 7
 
The jurors' decisions are:
  • First Prize: Philippe Sly
  • Second Prize: Olga Kindler
  • Third Prize: John Brancy

These are all very good singers. I have no quarrel with the choices. I'm especially happy for Mr. Sly that the judges were not bothered by what appeared to me to be a slight setback in his final round. He's an extremely talented young man. If you're looking for the total package, he's your man.

My only disappointment is that Yuri Gorodetski was not awarded one of the top prizes. (Some four other prizes will be awarded at the Gala Concert tomorrow.) I think he's a superb singer. It must be admitted, though, that I don't have any memory of his acting in the first two rounds and I didn't see the final round. Perhaps the judges didn't find him dynamic enough for the stage.

It was fun to attend the first two rounds and see whether or not my impressions of the singers lined up with those of the judges. An  event like this brings out the critic in everybody. And yet, there's another side of me that regrets very much this ranking of artists. It serves a purpose, I suppose, in that it helps to boost the careers of some worthy individuals. And maybe competition helps to bring out excellence in the arts. But people really shouldn't be classed as winners and losers, especially when the classification is based on sheer opinion. The parent in me -- indeed the grandparent now -- prefers to sit back and appreciate all these young people for the excellent work they're doing. Wouldn't it be great if we could celebrate all of them without having to declare that some of them are better than others?

 
June 6
 

Listening to the finals of the MIMC on Espace Musique gave an impression of the voices quite different from what I got in the hall during the quarter-finals and semi-finals. In general, everybody’s voice sounded brighter and lighter. Maybe it had something to do with the microphone. I’m going to post my responses now. Tomorrow I’ll check the jurors’ decisions. As to the overall impression of the performances, some of the singers may have slipped a bit in my estimation; some definitely gained ground. Others remained about where they were.

One who may have faltered slightly is bass-baritone Philippe Sly. The Count’s aria "Hai gi vinta la causa!" from Mozart’s Figaro may have been a little too demanding for the twenty-three-year-old singer. Some of the passage work didn’t sound quite smooth enough and one high note didn’t come off well. But Mr. Sly’s a very impressive singer and actor. He’s young enough that he could still enter the competition three times before he reaches the age limit of thirty-three.

John Brancy’s baritone voice sounded much better this time round. No problem with the "woolly" sound that bothered me earlier. Now it had more edge and bite to it. His Tchaikovsky (from La Dame de Pique) was very Russian, very soulful. And his "Largo al factotum" from Rossini’s Barbieri di Siviglia was the most rip-roaring I’ve ever heard. In my estimation, Mr. Brancy advanced a few paces towards the winners’ circle.

Another singer who made huge gains, in my opinion, is Won Whi Choi. In all humility, I must say that the jurors apparently heard something that I didn’t hear in his singing in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. Now he proved himself well worthy of the further opportunity to show his ability. His program in the finals was excellent, his voice soaring, with a slight but appealing tremolo.

Baritone Sidney Outlaw remains a strong contender. His voice is amazingly powerful and communicative, although it lacks a mellow, lush quality that’s desirable in the ideal baritone (if there can be such a thing). At times it sounds slightly brash.

For me, soprano Olga Kindler was the strongest of the women in the finals. Unfortunately, though, her voice seemed constrained in the "Laudamus te" from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The richness of her instrument did not come through. It did gloriously, though, in all her other selections, even if her high notes were occasionally a bit shrill. I was particularly taken with the drama in her final number, the tour de force monologue "To this we’ve come" from Menotti’s The Consul. What made it especially pleasing to hear Ms. Kindler in this piece was that, earlier in the competition, she had reminded me of Eileen Farrell and, if I remember correctly, Ms. Farrell made a speciality of The Consul.

Andranne Paquin is obviously a home-town favourite with the Montreal audience. She too seemed to have benefitted from the broadcast circumstances because the problem that bothered me before about her voice – the too-broad focus of the high notes – wasn’t nearly so noticeable. I thought she was at her best in the light, lilting "Je suis Titania" from Thomas’ Mignon, where her trill was impressive. Her selection from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress had a sameness throughout, i.e. a lack of emotional variety, but she picked some sudden high notes out of the air with great skill.

Soprano Emily Duncan-Brown sang very well through her program and her performance from the end of the first act of Verdi’s La Traviata was particularly fine, except that, for my liking, her voice is too light for the role.

It’s impossible, of course, to say how the judges’ decisions will go, but the one singer that I think should definitely be among the very top winners is Yuri Gorodetski, the tenor from Belarus. While other tenors give the impression that they’re striving and stretching, Mr. Gorodetski seems to pour out the long lines and the high notes effortlessly. It seems that there’s no limit to the reach of his soaring voice. His Russian repertoire, not very familiar to me, was very emotively sung. As for the better-known arias by Verdi and Mozart, I can say with some conviction that you seldom hear them sung as well – at the Met or any other opera company.

 
June 4
 
The jurors' choices for the finalists are:
  • Emily Duncan-Brown
  • John Brancy
  • Philippe Sly
  • Sidney Outlaw
  • Yuri Gorodetski
  • Andreanne Paquin
  • Won Whi CHoi
  • Olga Kindler

By checking my posting below, you can see that five of my choices for finalists made it onto the official list of eight. Without getting into invidious comparisons about who should or shouldn't have made the list, I'll simply say that the omission of Canadian soprano Jennifer Taverner from the jurors' list astonishes and disappoints me. (And my apologies to Ms. Taverner for getting her nationality wrong in my earlier posting, now corrected.) However, I've been involved in juries  for various kinds of artistic endeavours and there's no denying that strange things can happen in the process of deliberation. In any case, we're talking about opinions, not measurable facts, when it comes to artistic merit. That one group of judges doesn't see a certain candidate as a winner doesn't mean that another group of judges wouldn't.

All of which is to say that I'm not quarrelling with the judges' decisions in this competition, just that some of their choices puzzle me. The singers they've chosen are no doubt worthy of the further exposure. May they all do their best in the final round! (Having departed Montreal after a week's immersion in splendid singing, I'll be listening to the finals on Radio Canada's "Espace Musique", along with most of the rest of the country's opera lovers.)

 

June 2 (Evening)
 
More potential winners showed up in today's afternoon and evening sessions,which concluded the semi-finals of the competition.
 
Canadian soprano Jennifer Taverner,is so ready for the big time. Mozart wishes he could have heard "Porgi amor" from Figaro sung the way Ms. Taverner sings it. Not many singers can sustain so well the long arching phrases with so little support from the accompaniment. The slight tremolo in the singer's voice made the Countess' plangent lament heart-breaking. People should have been jumping to their feet at the conclusion of the aria but this audience didn't seem to get it; perhaps that's because it's a short aria and it doesn't end on a spectacular high note.
 
After wwo short pieces by Strauss that were marvellously well sung, came "Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle" from Gounod's Faust. If Ms. Tavener had convinced us earlier that she was the personification of Mozart's dignified Countess, now she showed us that she was a very different person: the flighty, frivolous Marguerite, infatuated with the look of herself in diamonds. The piece was tossed off with thrilling elan and it was a special pleasure that Ms. Taverner's French was perfectly clear. For the final selections of her program, Ms. Taverner took a sharp turn in direction. Her high-spirited offering of John Greer's goofy pieces from "A Sarah Binks Songbook" had me smiling from ear to ear at the travails of this pioneer with her calves, her pigs and her corn.
 
Canadian bass baritone Philippe Sly continues to rank very high on my list of projected winners. He started his program today with a soulful, warm "Chanson triste" by Duparc. That made a great contrast to his next offering, Leporello's catalogue aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Often, this can be nothing but a boring patter song. But not in the hands of Mr. Sly. He delivered this warning to Donna Elvira tongue-in-cheek, with a sort of sly wink, like somebody who, while breaking really bad news, keeps pretending to make light of it, while constantly making it worse. As in: "Well, we know it really doesn't matter that the Don had all these women in Italy and France, that's no big deal, but then, of course, there were the one thousand and three in Spain..."
 
Mr. Sly's "Why do the nations" from Handel's Messiah was expertly sung, the only problem being that the otherwise exemplary pianist, was too loud at times. That made it hard to fully appreciate Mr. Sly's passage work, which sounded, nevertheless, as though it was well exectuted. But we know that such problems of the balance of volume between accompaniment and singer won't occur when Mr. Sly, now just twenty-four, gets a few more years on his resume and a bit more meat on his body. In a selection of four Schubert songs, one of the most entertaining was "Fischerweise," in which we could clearly see and hear the different characters in the story. The final item, "An die Musik," which might be seen as Schubert's tribute to the great art that sustained his soul during his short life, brought out the contemplative side of Mr. Sly. One can imagine how the years will add depth and poignancy to his take on the song.
 
The first few offerings from bass baritone Yohan Yi, from South Korea, gave the impression of a singer who just stands there and lets the inexhaustible riches of his voice pour forth, through a variety of emotions. In selections from Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, we moved from langorous to feisty to belligerent. Then, in "It is enough," from Mendelssohn's Elijah we got the anguish and despair of the prophet. But suddenly, in "Tutto e disposto" from Mozart's Figaro, Mr. Yi stepped forward as an actor and hectored us with Figaro's biting cynicism about the fickleness of women. I've seldom had such a strong feeling of a singer's speaking directly to each person in the audience. He had us on the edge of our seats. The only quibble about Mr. Yi's deployment of his vast vocal resources might be that sometimes the transition to a lighter sound in the higher range wasn't always negotiated perfectly smoothly.
 
US baritone Sidney Outlaw has a voice so powerful that it could almost be called formidable. But I'm not sure that he has yet captured the true bel canto style, as required in his selections from Bellini ("Or dove fuggo...Ah! per sempre" -- I Puritani) and Donizetti ("Vien Leonora" -- La Favorite). The spritely, military moments were just fine but there was a lack of lyrical gentleness in other places. Duparc's frenzied "Le Galop" was also notable for its intensity. But Mr. Outlaw seemed quite at home setting a scene and telling a story in Vaughan Williams' "Silent Noon", a romantic selection from The House of Life. One soft high note near the end of the piece was rapturous. His final offering, a traditional American spiritual, "I Love the Name of Jesus," was sung without piano accompaniment in what I'd call a bluesy or soul style: notes were dragged out and phrases were modulated in an improvised-sounding way; some passages were simply hummed. A quality of rapt silence in the hall showed that Mr. Outlaw's commitment to the piece communicated deeply with his listeners.
 
The spirit of Beethoven came through unmistakeably in his epic "Ah perfido," as performed by soprano Olga Kindler, from Switzerland. Just as in his piano sonatas, you got unbearable rage alternating with melting sweetness. Ms.Kindler delivered all of it with great authenticity. By contrast of mood but with just as much believability, her Tchaikovsky -- "Spi did pod okoshkom ja tebe spoju serenadu" had a lilting come-hither feel to it. At times one might have wanted a slightly warmer, rounder sound in the upper register but the passion pouring out of Ms.Kindler's tremendous voice at high volume in Massenet's "Il est doux, il est bon," from Herodiade (it sounded like a spurned woman defiantly claiming she could live without some guy) made me think of a tidal wave sweeping over the audience. As for Strauss' electrifying "Sein vir wieder gut" from Ariadne auf Naxos, Ms. Kindler simply knocked it out of the park.
 
Canadian mezzo-soprano Irina De Baghy managed some astonishingly deep -- one might almost say 'guttural' -- coloratura in Rossini's "In si barbara sciagura," from Semiramide. The high notes in her Mozart aria from Idomeneo were good but there tends to be a loss of warmth and glow in the middle register of the voice. I felt Ms. De Baghy was at her best in Korngold's "Gluckwunsch" [sorry for the absence of accents, due to the limtiations of the software available to me here]. The soothing, caressing tone that Ms. De Baghy produced here was very agreeable. In the very Spanish-sounding pieces by Ruperto Chapi, what was most exciting were the quick switches from sultry, smokey tones to high, flirty notes.
 
Jacqueline Woodley, a Canadian soprano, sang Mozart's "Alleluja" (K. 165) perfectly well but her voice is a bit thin on top for the ideal treatment of the piece. As for Ms. Woodley's "Deh vieni non tardar" from Mozart's Figaro, the singing was pretty and sweet but somewhat lacking in drama. After all, Susannah's supposed to be trying to trick Figaro into thinking she's serenading the Count, so I think the soprano should be laying it on a bit thick. In the selections from Poulenc's Fiancailles pour rire, it seemed to me that Ms. Woodley's voice lacked the emotional range to do full justice to the work's shifting moods, although the final piece of the group, "Fleurs" had a lovely floating quality. When it came to the Presentation of the Rose from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, it seemed like we were dealing with another singer. Now. Ms. Woodley was fully up to conveying the many and various nuances of feeling, and some high notes picked out of the air were ravishing.
 
A selection from Bach's Cantate BWV 202 was beautifully sung by Canadian soprano Adreanne Paquin. The playful "Non monsieur mon mari!" from Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias brought out Ms. Paquin's comic talents. "Par le rang et l'opulence....Salut a la France," from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment was delivered with great spirit and very good coloratura. I'm somewhat bothered, though, by a quality in Ms. Paquin's louder high notes. There's a swelling, voluminous effect that creates too many overtones, to my ear. But let's hope it's not an issue for the jury. It certainly isn't for Ms. Paquin's many enthusiastic fans.
 
Magdalena Wor, from Poland, returned to the stage with her rich mezzo voice, establishing a domineering motif in Mozart's "Parto, parto" from La Clemenza di Tito but the voice tends to take on a harsh quality when the singer is pushing for volume. It becomes throaty and loses its ring. Her selection from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens -- "Samson recherchant ma presence....Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse!" flowed more melliflously and it had a very French sound. Ms. Wor's German was not as impressive in the Zigeunerlieder Opus 103 by Brahms. Although there was variety in the temple and tone of them, the pieces didn't engage one's attention as much as did performances by other singers of material in which the text, as in this case, wasn't familiar to the listeners. The second last piece, though, did have a lovely romantic feel. And Ms. Kindler apparently has a very good ear: she started many of the pieces without a note from the piano.
 
Won Whi Choi, from South Korea, has a very strong, muscular tenor voice but it lacks the finesse and the floating quality necessary in Mozart's "Dies Bildnis ist bezauberndschon" from Die Zauberflotte. At times, one caught some great beauty at the tail end of a phrase but, given the problem of wavering pitch, one wondered if Mr.Choi was plagued by nerves. He seemed to relax and enjoy himself more in Beethoven's long work, An die ferne Geliebte, consisting of several songs. One got the impression the singer's more at home in the Romantic repertoire. His "Ah, la paterna mano," from Verdi's Macbeth was heartfelt and powerful but I felt that, because the singer was pushing too much, he missed the true Verdi style where, no matter how furious the message, a certain lyricism creeps in.
 
Decision Time
 
I didn't stay at the concert hall tonight to hear the jurors' decisions on the eight singers to be finalists. So I'll give you my choices and we can compare them with the official choices tomorrow.
 
Sorry for being consistent (call me a stick-in-the-mud if you want), but I'm staying pretty close to my original choices of potential winners. These six are the ones that I think should definitely be finalists. I think they'll also be the prize-winners. In a competition like this, you inevitably come up with some people who are defiinitely far ahead of the others. Some are ready for careers; they're the ones you have to declare as winners. Others you can encourage but you can't hand them the laurels.
 
It doesn't matter much to me about the ranking of the prizes. When you're talking about art, how can you say one artist is three or four decimal points ahead of another? We know that these are all very good singers' that's all that matters. I'm not even planning to attend the finals. (Business calls me back to Toronto.) To me, the fun was in discovering these people. I know they're well on their way now. So best luck to all of them:
  • Yuri Goretski
  • Philippe Sly
  • Jennifer Taverner
  • Yohan Yi
  • Sidney Outlaw
  • Olga Kindler

Because eight will be chosen for the finals, I'll add:

  • John Brancy (he could win the prize for the best performance of the assigned Estacio piece)
  • Miriam Khalil

So check this space tomorrow if you want to see how my choices compare with the official ones.

June 2 (Morning)

 
Last night's first session of the semi-finals drew a somewhat larger, dressier crowd. There's more of a buzz about the proceedings now that the first round of cuts has been completed. Some of the singers are singing better. Possibly, they're feeling a burst of confidence at having got this far.
 
Still, the competition retains something of the informal charm of a summer festival. One afternoon, as the session finished and we headed for the outside, the air in the street was white with curtains of rain. With all of us trapped in the lobby for half an hour, there was nothing to do but chat with the singers about their performances. In the washroom yesterday, I was commiserating with one of the male singers who had been cut from the roster and he convinced me of his professionalism -- and his prospects for ultimate success -- in explaining that he was coming to see what he could learn from the remaining sessions. Another afternoon, I'd headed down the street for an ice cream cone during the half-hour break and a member of the team of expert pianists who are accompanying the singers came riding along on her bike. I asked her if she was finished for the day and she said that she had two more performances that evening. She asked where I got the cone and then offered the thought that maybe she'd go and get one too.
 
Which brings us to the subject of eating opportunities in the area of the concert hall, in the Museum of Fine Arts on Sherbrooke Street. The place where I got the cone, Divine, on Crescent Street, happens to be a very fine emporium of Belgian chocolate truffles. Then there's the bakery further west on Sherbrooke, Olivier Potier, that turns out exquisite French pastries. Rather an embarras de richesses, one might say. A way to cope with the problem would be to skip regular meals -- except that the neighbourhood is blessed myriad restaurants that offer excellent dining. Quite a vexing situation: one came here to binge on culture, not calories.
 
On the way home in the evenings, it's fun to encounter the protest parades. The main impression is that everybody -- most of them under thirty -- is having a good time on a balmy summer evening. First evening, it was a relatively short parade, about three blocks long, maybe two or three thousand marchers. Next night, the line was much longer, maybe ten blocks. But don't believe everything you read in the press about these pots-and-pans demonstrations. As usual, the media have been exaggerating. The vast majority of the marchers aren't banging on pots or pans -- they're only banging on lids of pots and pans. I think that puts quite a different complexion on things, don't you? One night, the entire march passed, followed by cop cars and, bringing up the rear was a scrawny old lady in her motorized wheel chair. Was she keeping the cops in line.
 
At the competition, most of the staff, volunteers and audience members -- about eighty percent, I'd say -- are French. When you speak to them in your halting French, they usually wait patiently, with a helpful expression to try to encourage you. Occasionally, they'll switch to English.
 
The only disquieting note about the whole affair is the fact that the mean age of attendees is about sixty-five. Almost no younger folk on hand, except musicians who have come to support their peers. It makes you wonder who these up-and-coming singers are going to be singing to thirty years from now.
 
The undisputed star of yesterday's session, in my opinion, was Yuri Gorodetski, the tenor from Belarus. And judging by the howls, yells and whistles from the audience, he was their favourite too. He's that rare animal that was born to sing. Just put him on stage, let him open his mouth, sit back and enjoy the innate musicianship that pours out of him. 
 
Mr. Gorodetski opened his program with "Il mio tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. You hold your breath when any tenor attempts this one because not many can pull it off and, of those who can, very few can do it with the long, unbroken line of coloratura -- as Mr. Gorodetski did. My impression is that he started this way in order to show that he can easily handle the polished, perfect gems of the classical repertoire, because then he went on to more lavish Romantic fare by the likes of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Vladimir Soltan. I've never heard Strauss (not my favourite composer) sung so seductively and sensuously. It was the Soltan piece -- beginning and ending with a eery, haunting call that sounded like a lonely voice wafting across the steppes -- that drew the loudest vocal response from the audience.
 
It couldn't have been easy for American countertenor Eric Jurenas to come next on the program. Luckily, he had chosen to open with a number utterly unlike anything we'd heard so far. An odd, modernistic piece by Jonathan Dove, it was a nighmarish account of things like rats running, a sky like ice, airplanes rumbling and somebody praying for a better day. The piece gave ample opportunity for a display of the extraordinary dynamic range of Mr. Jurenas' countertenor voice. Not many countertenors can summon the expressive resources that he can.
 
At just twenty-two years old, the man is something of a phenomenon. One hopes that he will take very good care of his voice. (A few slightly baritone rasps in the lower register were worrying.) If Mr. Jurenas doesn't make it to the final round that might be because his selection of short Dvorak pieces was too long and unvariegated. It was hard to get much sense of the mood or character of the pieces, except for a lilting one in thre-quarter time. After the workout on Dvorak, Mr. Jurenas seemed a bit tired on Handel's "Al lampo dell'armi" from Giulio Cesare, but he handled the coloratura well.
 
Soprano Emily Duncan-Brown, from Canada, was in gorgeous voice for "Donde lieta usci" from Puccini's La Boheme but her manner was a bit too cheerful, it seemed to me. Granted, Mimi is claiming that she's saying goodbye without any hard feelings but surely there should be more of a feeling of ambiguity about it. Ms. Duncan-Brown gave a winsome performance of Bernstein's songs from the "I Hate Music" collection but I'm not sure of the point of giving these cutesy pieces, supposedly from the mouth of a ten-year-old, to operatic sopranos. No matter how skilfull their acting, it's almost impossible for a mature soprano voice to make the words sound like they're coming from a kid. In Haydn's monumental "Berenice che fai?" Ms. Duncan-Brown gave us an exciting contrast between moments of fury and of tenderness.
 
Sasha Djihanian, another Canadian soprano, sounded glorious in "Die vieni, non tardar," from Mozart's Figaro, but I felt she had almost too much voice for the role of Susannah; it was as though Ms. Djihanian kept having to rein her voice in to keep it from expanding too much. Her interpolations in the reprise of the main theme were delightful, as were her ornamentations in Handel's "O sleep, why dost thou leave me?" from Semele. Pieces by Fernando Obradors were delivered with appropriate touches of Hispanic spice and panache. The pianissimo effects in "Qui la voce sua soave" from Bellini's I Puritani were notable but the final high note didn't come off very well.
 
Granting that I'm not a great fan of Benjamin Britten as a composer, one still has to wonder whether it's a very good idea to open a program with The Tower Scene from The Turn of the Screw,  as Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil did. Her singing and acting were fine but there's not much melody to carry the listeners along; too much depends on understanding the narrative and, if you don't know much about the opera, that leaves you in the lurch. Far more suitable were the Du Parc pieces -- "L'invitation au voyage," and "Le Manoir de Rosemonde" which allowed Ms. Khalil's voice to  pour out in musicality that didn't depend on story.
 
In my opinion, Ms. Khalil's take on "Si, Mi chiamano Mimi," from Puccini's La Boheme, brought her much closer to the winners' circle  (although it wasn't clear that the audience agreed with me). For most of the aria, she caputured the perfect Puccini style, especially in the high notes which started pianissmo, like darts tossed carelessly to the back of the hall, then grew in strength until they became lines strong enough to hang your clothes on. Ms. Khalil's interpretation of the Obradors pieces captured a truly elemental, blood-curdling quality that was missing from performances of similar material by other singers.
 
Baritone John Brancy, from the US, showed yet again that he's a performer with tons of personality. Regarding all of his selections, you could say that they couldn't have been sung or acted better. The coloratura in the Bellini -- "Ah! per sempre" from I Puritani -- was flawless. "O vin dissipe la tristesse" from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas had all the required vigour. What was, perhaps, most amazing about Mr. Brancy's program was his delivery of the Dvorak pieces. He took you right to the heart of some Czech village where a spell-binding story-teller was holding everybody enthralled around the fire. You had no need to understand any of the words; the emotional message of the stories came through clearly. Just one caveat about Mr. Brancy's chances: if he doesn't make it to the finals or to the winners' list, it might have to do with the quality of his voice. The high notes are perfectly placed but, in the lower registers, there's a woolly, muffled quality, a lack of ring and edge.
 
 
June 1
 
I'd planned to stay after the performances last night to hear the announcement of the singers chosen for the semi-finals but the judges' deliberations were dragging on. After half an hour of waiting, I packed it in without hearing the official results. In any case, it isn't the hoop-la about winners and losers that interests me so much. Mainly what I'm here for is just to hear some really good singing. So I'll give my impressions of yesterday's lineup and then we'll see what the judges had to say.
 
Of the seven singers on deck yesterday, just one made it onto my list of definite finalists. Olga Kindler, from Switzerland (b. 1981), has a glorious soprano voice which -- unlike the voices of many of the women competitors -- doesn't seem to have suffered any damage yet. There's almost a mezzo quality to its golden tones. Perhaps her Mozart -- "Ei parte...Per pieta" from Cosi -- could have had a bit more snap and bite to it. When these Mozart babes start venting the sparks should fly. Ms. Kindler's selection from Tchaikovsky's La Dame de Pique, "Ne nadozatvorjat...Zachem zhe eti sljozy" was rich with drama. Most notably, Ms. Kindler's expansive style managed to touch on the cosmic implications of the Estacio piece in a way no other singer had. And she built the work to a climax that her audience found quite exciting -- which is something of an accomplishment, considering that this was the twenty-first time we were hearing the piece.
 
Baritone Insu Hwang, from South Korea (b. 1983) had such a stern look on his face when he took the stage that you had the impression of somebody trying to retain his composure before a firing squad. But perhaps Mr. Hwang was trying to get us in the mood for his opening piece, a sombre offering from Mahler, "Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz." After a somewhat tentative start, Mr. Hwang produced a tone that could be quite mesmerizing at times, although it often had an edgy, almost malevolent component. In "Miei rampolli femminini" from Rossini's La Cenerentola, one got the impression that it's not easy for Mr. Hwang to unbend when it comes to acting. On the whole, he wasn't one of the most communicative of singers -- there's something aloof and solemn about him -- but his pianissimo delivery of the final word --  "dawn" -- on the Estacio piece was perfect.
 
Mezzo-sopranos tend to fall into one or the other of two categories. There are those whose voice quality doesn't differ much from that of sopranos; it's just the range that's different. (I'm thinking of singers like Ceclia Bartoli.) Then there are the mezzos who have a very different sound: darker, more mellow. Magdalena Wor, from Poland (b. 1980) is one of those. The greatest beauty of her voice is the warmth in the lower registers; at times, though, the top notes seem to lack centres. This kind of voice didn't seem well-suited to the narrative requirements of the Estacio piece but Ms. Wor produced a luscious legato in three songs by Gabriel Faure [accent missing, sorry!].
 
Soprano Ileana Montalbetti, from Canada (b. 1982) has a wonderful feel for Wagner.  "Einsam in truben Tagen" from Lohengrin was delivered with tremendous verve. Perhaps the Mozart -- "Allora rinforzo....Or sai chi l'onore" from Don Giovanni -- didn't show Ms. Montalbetti's art at its best; she seems not to have quite the degree discipline, the control and finesse required. The more free-wheeling Romantic repertoire, as exemplified in three songs from Richard Strauss, seems to suit her bettter. Ms. Montalbetti's voice tends to take on a harsh edge when she pushes for volume, but her open, friendly facial expression helps to make her a very communciative singer. That was especially evident in the Estacio piece, which Ms. Montalbetti delivered in the engaging way of a Broadway star.
 
Won Whi Choi, from South Korea (b. 1980) is one of those tenors who sounds more like a baritone when you first hear his dark, robust voice. Eventually, the high notes do show his true tenor status but they sounded strained in the Estacio piece, which opened Mr. Choi's program. It wasn't until he got to his third selection from Faure that Mr. Choi seemed to relax and let some sweetness enter into his voice. Although his voice seldom showed any light, floating quality, he demonsrated the right style for his Mozart ("Un'aura amorosa" from Cosi) and Gounod ("Salut! demeure chaste et pure" from Faust). In the latter aria, Mr. Choi nailed the final high note perfectly, which made the sudden, pianissimo of the following notes exquisite.
 
Another tenor from South Korea, Dongshin Lee (b. 1986), also has a dark sound with not a lot of brighness to it. He's one of those men, however, who gets very good resonance in the mask of the face; it's particularly noticeable in the "oo" and the "ee" sounds. I thought that Mr. Lee's three optional arias, although well sung and with a good sense of appropriate style, were too similar in mood i.e. graceful and delicate: "Quando ti rivedro" by Donaudy; "Il lamento di Federico" from Cilea's L'Arlesiana; and "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon" from Mozart's Die Zauberflote. It took some trying for Mr. Lee to get the Estacio piece off the ground but it did eventually soar.
 
There's a lovely timbre -- clear and bright -- to the soprano voice of Canada's Caroline Bleau (b. 1981) but I felt her performance of the Estacio piece was too operatic in the sense that it was too "grand", there was too much emoting. The same thing bothered me about Ms. Bleau's "Dove sono" from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Her voice is well-suited to the challenges of this pinnacle of the soprano repertoire but I felt there should be more holding back on the part of the Countess, nothing of the melodramatic element, more dignity; that makes it all the more effective when she does explode. Some wild high notes were problematic in "Enfin je suis ici" from Massenet's Cendrillon. Ms.Bleau seemed to be at her most comfortable best in Duparc's "Phydile" which she sang with a long, fluid line, establishing a dreamy, romantic mood that was quite captivating.
 
OK. So much for the quarter-finals. Now for my definite choices of singers for the semi-finals (and probably for the finals). I'm most certain about:
 
  • Yuri Gorodetski (tenor)
  • Philippe Sly (bass baritone)
  • Sidney Outlaw (baritone)
  • Yohan Yi (bass baritone)
  • Jennifer Taverner (soprano)
  • Olga Kindler (soprano)

My understanding is that the judges are picking sixteen singers for the next round but I'm not interested in trying to sort though all the "possibles." It comes down to a game of "it could be this one or it could be that one." And I'm not a betting man. Besides, when you're choosing sixteen from twenty-three, it looks too much like picking the unfortunate seven to be dumped. And I don't like that negative way of looking at things.

However, I will add two more names of singers who are, in my opinion, probably very worthy of continuing on to the next round:

  • Eric Jurenas (countertenor)
  • John Brancy (baritone)

Now, it's time to see what the jurors have decided. When I find out, I'll let you know.

Later: Here are the judges' choices for the next round:

  • Emily Duncan-Brown
  • Yuri Gorodetski
  • Eric Jurenas
  • Sasha Djihanian
  • Miriam Khalil
  • John Brancy
  • Irinia De Baghy
  • Jacqueline Woodley
  • Jennifer Taverner
  • Yohan Yi
  • Andreanne Paquin
  • Philippe Sly
  • Sidney Outlaw
  • Magdalena Wor
  • Won Whi Choi
  • Olga Kindler

As you can see, my six definite choices and my two probable choices made it onto the official list. Maybe it's not statistically so very significant to say that my eight were included among the sixteen chosen from a field of twenty-three. But it is reassuring to find that the jurors seem to be somewhat on the same page with me. Of their eight choices beyond my eight, the only surprise is that one singer whom I found iffy was included, while one that I found more likely was excluded.

The first round of the semi-finals is tonight; the other two rounds are tomorrow. Don't know whether I'll get a chance tomorrow morning to post my impressions of tonight's performances; I may wait till Sunday to comment on all the semi-final performances. We'll see....

 
 
May 31
 
As of yesterday's performances, it would seem that the men are taking the lead in this competition. Four more potential fianlists emerged (in my opinion) and three of them are men.
 
Maybe we can't claim credit for discovering bass baritone Yohan Yi from South Korea (b. 1978) -- given that he's sung Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro as conducted by no less a luminary than Placido Domingo -- but maybe we're the first to hear him hereabouts. The Estacio piece (see the description of it in yesterday's posting, below) may not have shown Mr. Yi's command of English to best advantage but it did serve as an introduction to his very powerful voice. His "Se vuol ballare" from The Marriage of Figaro, dripping with bitter sarcasm, made you think that Count Almaviva had better watch out for this Figaro.
 
But it was "Quand la flame de l'amour" from Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth that made the strongest impression of Mr.Yi's artistry. He grabbed you by the throat (or whatever part of your anatomy felt the efrect most strongly) and didn't let go. Pretending to be happy with the song's lilting "la-la-la's," Mr.Yi took us to some place of depressed, existential dread that was truly terrifying. By way of complete contrast, a seductive, sensuous feeling came across in Mr. Yi's selections from Ravel's Don Quichotte series. (Made me think of what genteel ladies used to say about the sound of a certain male voice: He can park his slippers under my bed.)
 
Canadian Philippe Sly (b. 1988) looks like a California beach boy with his tousled blonde curls and his chiselled good looks, so it's something of a shock to hear his very commanding bass baritone. All the more so, when you realize that he's only twenty-three years old. It quickly becomes apparent that this young man has been given some very remarkable gifts. One can only hope that he will use them well.
 
And it looks like that's what he's doing. His "Non piu andrai" from The Marriage of Figaro had more character in it than I've heard in any performance by any other singer. Mr. Sly gave the impression that this Figaro, while threatening young Cherubino with the horrors of military life, was standing back and laughing at the situation. He even managed to finish the aria with a bit of special comedy: as the pianist was rounding off the piece with the final flourishes, Mr. Sly kept making as if he wanted to sing more. But the pianist wasn't giving him a chance, so he contented himself with a "Whatever!" shrug. His "Air du Prince Igor", from Borodin's Prince Igor, took us on a gut-wrenching emotional journey, even if we couldn't  understand one word of the text. Like most of the performers in the competition, Mr. Sly used the sheet music for the Estacio piece. (I assume they were given a limited time to prepare it.) I'm sure he didn't intend this as a type of showing-off but his holding the book in his hand had a notable effect. He seemed to be saying: Look, I don't know this piece all that well, but see how I can deliver every nuance and modulation as the consummate professional that I am. 
 
Sidney Outlaw (b. 1981), from the US, has a baritone voice that's very bright and clear on top -- almost like a tenor -- yet without losing the richness of the baritone in the deeper register. Also using the music for the Estacio piece, he chose to deliver it in a very direct, personal way. In "Resta immobile" from Rossini's Guglielmo Tell, it struck me that perhaps Mr.Outlaw didn't quite have the feel of Italian opera yet; although I don't know the piece, it didn't sound like Rossini to me. But Mr. Outlaw's delivery of "Behold I tell you...the trumpet shall sound" from Handel's Messiah was nothing short of heroic. Pouring out a long, sustained line, he actually interpolated some fluttering trumpet-like effects that I'd never heard before in the piece, bringing it to a thrilling climax.
 
Many of the sopranos in the competion have a problem, it seems to me, with their high notes. I think this comes from pushing their voices too much too soon, from attempting material that's too strenuous for them. As a result, the voices become expanded in the upper register. Instead of a bright, clear note, you get an enormous wavering sound. Like a French horn, you might say, when what's wanted is a flute.
 
No such problem with the singing of Canadian soprano Jennifer Taverner (b. 1979). In fact, I'd say that she's the best prepared, the most ready for a professional career, of any of the women singers we've heard so far. Her voice is perfectly placed from top to bottom. "Quando m'en vo" (Musetta's waltz song) from Puccini's La Boheme was warm and sensuous. The singer's expert handling of challenging material was fully on display in "Come scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Interestingly, Ms. Taverner treated the Estacio piece more as a musical composition to be enjoyed as such rather than as a story to be told; that might seem to be a cop-out and yet she had me listening more closely than to some of the other singers' renditions of the piece. It seemed to me that Ms. Taverner's performances of the Granados pieces from Canciones amatorias could be faulted only for being, perhaps, too elegant and beautiful. One longed for a yelp of gutsy, raw passion here and there.
 
As for the other singers on the day's roster, any of them could make it to the next round but their prospects do not seem as secure to me as those of the four singers mentioned above.
 
John Brancy (b. 1988), a baritone from the US, has a voice that's velvety in the lower range and somewhat more open in the upper range. His performance of the Estacio was, in comparison to the several offerings of the piece heard so far, one of the best articulated in terms of story-telling. He also delivered one of the finest pianissimo renderings of the work's final word "dawn". (I'm assuming that the composer asked for it to be sung this way since most of the singers tried for it but some apparently couldn't manage it.) One of the best things about Mr. Brancy as a performer is that he comes across as very likeable, with tons of charm -- which was much in evidence in his jubilant performance of the drinking song "Chanson a boire" from Ravel's Don Quichotte series.
 
Jacqueline Woodley, from Canada (b. 1984), may not be the absolute youngest competitor but she has a very fresh, youthful look. Fittingly when she first began to sing, her voice struck me as almost angelic in its beauty, ideally suited to Debussy's "Apparition." However, the piece is extremely difficult, leaving the singer performing without a net in the stratosphere at times, and this angel's gambollng among the clouds didn't always avoid slips. Donizetti's "C'en est donc fait...Salut a la France" from La Fille du Regiment was performed competently although the very top notes were screechy (but that seems to be what most singers -- even the Met stars -- are offering these days). It seemed to me that the dramatic demands of the Estacio piece stretched the singer's talents a bit too far.
 
Canadian mezzo-soprano Irina De Baghy (b. 1981) opened her set with Vivaldi's "Armate face et anguibus" from Juditha triumphans. The rapid-fire coloratura, very well exected, reminded me of the kind of thing that Cecilia Bartola specializes in. You longed for a chance for the voice to open up but when it did, the high notes struck me as being a bit too broad in terms of focus. Ms. De Baghy was at her best in Copland's Old American Songs -- such as "Simple Gifts" and "We Shall Gather at the River." The singing was very direct, gracious and sincere, in a way that reminded me of the art of Edith Wiens, one of this year's jurors.
 
Adreanne Paquin, a Canadian soprano (b. 1983), performs with great confidence and elan. However, I think it would be wise not to attempt any acting on Mozart's "Exsultate, jubilate." For a religious piece like that, a singer should stand perfectly still, as though not wanting to direct any attention to herself. Ms. Paquin handled the quicksilver shifts of mood very well in Strauss' "Grossmachtige Prinzessin" from Ariadne auf Naxos, one the most flamboyant and virtuosic pieces we've heard so far from any of the women competitors, but the pitch wasn't always secure.
 
Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko (b. 1984) strikes me as one of those natural, instinctive singers, rather than the more polished, perfected variety. His vehemence and conviction in "Ein Schwert verheiss mir der Vater" from Wagner's Die Walkure reminded me of Hamlet's comment about the actor who could tear a passion to tatters. One of the very good things about Mr. Antipenko's voice is that, in the middle register, he has a beautiful, resonant sound coming from the mask of the face, i.e.the sinuses, an effect not often heard in the voices of men trained in North America.
 
It's becoming very interesting to see how the various singers interpret the Estacio piece and Mr. Antipenko gave us yet another very effective approach: he sang it mostly with his eyes closed as though he were recalling a dream. From Handel's Serse, "Frondi tenere e belle....Ombra mai fu" (the famous "Largo") was delivered with the requiste stately, legato.  However, in a piece where you have to pick high notes out of the air, as in this one, you've got to be sure that you've grabbed the note precisely. This wasn't always the case. Similar problems with pitch plagued Mr. Antipenko's other selections. But that could be due to a temporary indisposition. Mr. Antipenko had been scheduled to sing the previous night but had been obliged to postpone his performance because of illness.
 
Watch this space tomorrow to see if my choices of singers for the next round correspond in any way to the jurors' selections. Because those official results will be announced after tonight's completion of the quarter-finals, I won't be able to give you my opinions of today's singers before the judges have given theirs. But I promise to be honest in my responses, even if they're wildly at odds with what the judges, in their wisdom, have decreed. (You know we always try to keep ourselves free of other critics' influences here at Dilettante's Diary.)
 
Note: the software I'm working on here in Montreal doesn't permit the insertion of accents on the webpage. Sorry for the absence of the appropriate adornments on many of the non-English words above.
 
 
 
May 30
 
In yesterday's installment of the quarter-finals, we heard seven singers. It's too early to say which of them should definitely go on to the semi-finals. They all sang very well. Not surprising, really, given that they're just twenty-three chosen from many hopefuls from around the world. I'd hire any of these seven for my opera company (if I had one); in fact, most of them are already well launched on professional careers. Some of them looked like they might be finalists but -- who knows? -- we might yet hear more dazzling performances.
 
However, one singer stood out in yesterday's showing: Yuri Gorodetski, a tenor from Belarus (born in 1983). The vocal response from the audience made it clear that this guy's a hit. This is what these events are about. The man swept us away with his artistry and his passion. His voice is high and bright, perhaps not as sweet as an Italian tenor's; there may be a slightly rougher, more Slavic quality, with just a hint of a throb to it. But he's a total musician, in every cell of his body. And that's a rather striking body. Tall, gaunt and gangly, he has a strong jaw, very full lips and a thick mane of dark hair. You wouldn't be surprised if he showed up at your door to fix your computer. So it was all the more astounding to hear the magnificent singing pouring out of him. His "Una furtiva lagrima...." from Donizetti's L'Elisir d' Amore reduced me to a puddle of sweet gratitude. In "Comfort Ye My People - Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" from Handel's Messiah, the long spinning line, with little nuances inserted, was thrilling.
 
Even his performance of the assigned Canadian piece, "Daybreak," by John Estacio was phenomenal. With text by John Murrell, it's a long, wide-ranging, impressionistic piece, with cosmic implications, about a young couple who go out into a field to contemplate the dawn and try to decide whether or not to have a child. Understandably, Mr. Gorodetski's English wasn't clear enough to make all the words intelligible. But it didn't matter. He was so throughly convincing in putting across the story with all its moods -- from climactic outpourings of joy to tiny whispers of trepidation -- that you got the message even without the words.
 
For lack of time to give a full review of all yesterday's performances, a few notes on each of them:
 
Eric Jurenas, from the US (b 1989), has a voice quite unlike that of any other countertenor I've heard. It's clearer and purer, more like a soprano, without the slightly strained sound of many countertenors. Mind you, the expansive Estacio piece seemed to be stretching the countertenor voice to its limits.  Mr. Jurenas seemed most comfortable in the jokey, sarcastic pieces by Francis Poulenc but he also did a beautiful job of the coloratura in "Se l'inganno" from Handel's Ariodante.
 
The baritone of Cosimo Eliseo, from Canada (b. 1978) has what I call a covered sound. It's not a question of volume -- there's lots of that -- but there isn't a bright, edgy sound to the voice, even in the upper register. Still, the voice is seamlessly produced from top to bottom. In "Behold, I tell you a mystery....The trumpet shall sound," from Handel's Messiah, Mr. Eliseo's breath control and phrasing, his ability to produce a long, unbroken line, were amazing. So was his acting in "Cortitgiani, vil razza..." from Verdi's Rigoletto, which was delivered with the perfect Verdian mixture of rage and lyricism.
 
Karel Martin Ludvik, from Canada (b. 1980) has a rich, full bass baritone voice and the physique to go with it: tall, statuesque (think Frat Boy Football Hero). Although his voice is more beautiful in the softer passages, he had great fun playing up the humour in "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo," from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, a piece beloved now mainly because of its reference to that remote and strange place known as "Canada." J.S. Bach's "Grosser Herr und starker Konig" from the Weichnacts Oratorio was delivered with power and majesty but I thought the articulation in the coloratura passages might have been clearer.
 
The thing that struck me most of all about soprano Sasha Djihanian, from Canada (b. 1985) is that she's a supreme communicator, musically speaking. She put across Leonard Bernstein's short, whimsical songs in the "I Hate Music" collection with tremendous flair. In "Je suis encore" from Massenet's Manon, she was totally the ingenuous school girl brimming with infectuous glee on her first big journey (even if it was to the convent). A few high notes tossed off rapidly didn't sound quite perfect but special marks -- in my books -- go to Ms. Djihanian for the fact that she was the only singer whose German and French sounded like the real thing.
 
Miriam Khalil, from Canada (b. 1979) has a soprano voice unlike some others. Many young sopranos develop such a large sound that, when they hit a high note at volume, it swells with so much resonance that it seems to be wandering all over the place. Ms. Khalil's voice is more focussed, more centred. I like its golden glow. In "Comme autrefois" from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de perles", however, the voice was dangerously exposed in the upper registers, at a point where there was no piano accompaniment, and the effect wasn't entirely successful. Ms. Khalil handled the coloratura in "Da tempeste" from Handel's Giulio Cesare very well but I think she'd be well advised to avoid the tendency to wiggle her body as a way of helping to navigate the tricky passages.
 
Soprano Emily Duncan-Brown, of Canada (b. 1985) had the unenviable task of giving the day's first performance. She carried off the assignment with great aplomb but it wasn't until her final piece, the day's first offering of  "Da tempeste" from Handel's Giulio Cesare, that she seemed to be really enjoying herself. She tossed it off with sparkle and expertise. Jurors always say that competitors should choose arias that show off their talents to best advantage and this one certainly did for Ms. Duncan-Brown.

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