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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition, Day 3

The overlapping schedules make it difficult to follow all four categories in the first round, but hazardous bike-bound crisscrossing through town does enable to check out rumored and known favorites. I am allowing voice to take precedence, but Emmanuel Ceysson’s 10am performance at the Gasteig chamber concert hall was not to be missed. Washingtonians were able to hear him as part of the 2006 Young Concert Artist programs where he impressed greatly at the Terrace Theater. He’s a favorite at the ARD competition, too, and he plays up all harpist clichés at once. Theatrical flair and the tanned looks of a Caribbean cherub, half closed eyes that signal romantic ecstasy (including a Bach interpretation to go with the image), and the heavy heaving of a soul burdened with beauty.

The playing—Bach, Prokofiev, Salzedo—just shy of perfect, sounds nearly angelic, too. (One cannot help but wonder if some of the members in the jury—themselves in the early(ish) midst of luminous careers—can have any interest adding the ARD prize to a viable competitor for the limited lime-light room for solo harpists.) Bach’s Third French Suite transcribed for harp (the same he played in DC) was followed by the Prokofiev Prélude in C, op.12, no.7. Where did that splendid work—hardly noticeable as a transcription—come from? Too bad one usually encounters these sorts of pieces only on specialist harp CDs (or in harp competitions) when it would be—and is—of interest far beyond the harp-lover’s Kondonassis romantic potpourri world.

Off to the voices at the Academy for Music & Theater, a building famous for having been the Nazi Party’s headquarters, then the Allies’ central collecting point for the restitution of stolen art. I arrive in time to hear Maria Sushansky sing Zerbinetta’s “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” (R.Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos) respectably enough, though in what language, I can’t determine. Too bad that even “respectable” sounds poor in such close proximity of a Zerbinetta performance of Diana Damrau just across town. Donizetti,’s “Prendi, pre me sei libero”, replete with operatic fake laughter, was a notable improvement dotted with rare delightful moments since Sushansky’s agile, though hardly light voice, better suited the music. Still, little by way of beauty and an occasionally forced vibrato will keep her from advancing to the second round. As is sadly to be expected with young singers whose focus is opera, the Schubert Lied—“Delphine”—was a strident aria, not an intimate song.

Linda McAlister—USA—in emerald green, began with a stuffed, throaty voice and the definition of soft bubblegum. She woke only toward the end of Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier” (Semiramide), just in time for an Olympic-weirdly Schubert (“Geheimniss”). “Heute wies er” from Henze’s Elegie for Young Lovers was a bold and intriguing choice; not surprisingly it was Mlle. McAlister’s strong suit to the point of lifting her entire performance to another level… sadly not enough to advance one round, as per the jury’s assessment.

What an immediate difference—in stage presence alone—Katharina Persicke (Germany): Schubert’s “Auf dem See” indicated with the first two notes that this is not an operatic singer but a musician; there is Lied-experience at work her. Her mezzo-suitable soprano is strong and focused. And although not my (narrow) ideal of naturalness in art song, the appropriateness is undeniable, enjoyable. “Stetit puelia” from Orff’s Carmina Burana convinced of the suitability of Persicke’s voice even for large concert halls. John Corigliano (“Masters of war”, Mr. Tambourine Man – Seven Poems of Bob Dylan) finally gave evidence of a dominant dramatic streak that would suite any of her opera stage-colleagues nicely.

I found Aleksandra Kubas’ soprano painfully piercing at its most pressed and highest, and marred by inaccuracy that her gift for loudness cannot compensate for. That was bad in Rossini (“Una voce poco fà”), hopeless in Schubert (“Auf dem Wasser zu singen”), and questionably-impressive in Verdi. My opera-expert colleague thought differently, and praised Kubas for possessing immensely promising raw material. (Put me down for raw; the jury for promising: Kubas advanced into the second round.)

Of all the singers, Maren Jakob (Germany) picked the musical program that charmed me most; promising a musically kindred spirit with an interest in Henze, Schreker, Pfitzner even, Argento, and Mahler. But in Hugo Wolf’s “Der Knabe und das Immlein”, Schubert’s “Delphine”, and then Johann Strauss’ “Frühlingsstimmen” she wasn’t ready to live up to that promise. Her already smallish soprano was timid and untidy, her enunciation unclear. I couldn’t think of a guest I’d rather invite to every musical soirée, but effectively she doesn’t and won’t exceed impressive amateur level.

Tobias Berndt (Germany) produced a robust, one-dimensional baritone in Bach’s “Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen” (BWV 57), made his uniform sonority work to the advantage of Ravel’s “Chanson romanesque” (Don Quichotte) and effectively powered through Schubert’s dramatic ballad “Der Zwerg”. A little more flexibility and a more sensitive pianism could help him advance even beyond the second round.

Shan Wu (China) surely would not have followed Berndt into the second round just on account of her Mozart (“A! chiaror”, Ascanio in Alba) or her Schubertian Young Nun, although both were satisfactorily pronounced. A diminutive firecracker of a performer who choose theatricality over precision in the Mozart and wasn’t quite at home in Schubert, she let loose in “Je marche sur tous le chemins” (Masenet, Manon) and squeaked onward and upward.

There is an element of cruelty to making young aspiring opera singers like Suyoun Kang (Korea) sing Schubert (“Gretchen am Spinnrade”) in front of a German audience—although fortunately they applaud generously, across the board, and sometimes even indiscriminately. “Temerari! – Come scoglio” (Mozart, Così fan tutte) was an improvement, if a bit much of the same. Then she took a leap as she got around to singing Puccini’s “Tu che di gel sei cinta” (Turandot) that convinced the jury to hear more of her in the coming days.

And speaking of the jury: among the very prominently cast juries this year, the jury for voice sparkles the most with current and bygone fame. Under the chairmanship of Jens Malte-Fischer, a vainglorious musicologist and author of the definitive Mahler biography in German (admittedly benefitting from the absence of a German translation of Henri Louis de la Grange’s magnum opus), judges the concentrated experience of American singers Julie Kaufmann, Cheryl Studer, and Grace Bumbry, Bayreuth’s famous black Venus in 1961 who looks radiant still at 72. Konrad Jarnot and Robert Tear are Britain’s prominent contributions, and Lado Ataneli (Georgia) and Irwin Gage (Switzerland) complete the critical eight.

I rounded out the afternoon with three harpists—Iwaki Akiko (Japan), Ronith Mues (Germany), Anneleen Lenaerts (Belgium)—all three of which I found impressive in their own way. Iwaki for her delicacy and gentle tone in Bach (a little thin, perhaps, and a little tight under duress), silvery-gutsy in the Prokofiev, and nicely worked out voices in Pierné’s Impromptu-Caprice. Ronith Mues established herself as a power-harpist, leaving wafty-romantic stereotypes behind, and making Fauré’s Impromptu op.86 sound like an organ work—loud and precise. Like Iwaki and Ceysson the day before, she took the very high arpeggios of the Prokofiev Prélude with a crescendo and taking her time to sound each and especially the last note, rather than just brushing over them. Anneleen Lenaerts did the latter in her altogether less interesting, ‘safer’ Prokofiev, but she offered terrific softness of tone in Pierre Sancan Thème et variations (an awkward showpiece for the harp and not, to these ears, the stuff the Fauré or Salzedo are made of). Same in C.P.E.Bach’s sonata, which she indulged with perhaps more deliberation and care than the work deserves (or needs). Mues and Lenaerts advanced, Akiko did not. The two double-bassists, an Austrian and a Slovenian, that closed out their instrument’s first round in the early evening offered nothing but maltreatment of their instruments.

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