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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition, Day 7

Day Seven began with an interview with Grace Bumbry who spoke about the duties of a jury, what she looked for in a singer (“if the technique isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how good their high notes are or how effective their stage presence”), the dilemma they face with singers excellent in a few elements, but less so in others (“do you give them a prize—when what they really need is a teacher?”), and the commissioned composition that every singer has to tackle in the semi-finals.

Bumbry minced no words: “I think the contemporary composition harms the competition.” She is worried that a lot of good singers, who got the John Woolrich work very late, pulled out, unwilling to spend the time and effort on a work not even transposed into comfortable keys for the low voices of mezzo and bass/baritone. When I interject that part of winning the ARD prize might be precisely that willingness to learn and perform something new, to show that open mindedness about new music, even if the piece isn’t necessarily a new hit aria. Bumbry acknowledges the point, but is in no mood to concede it. My colleague pipes up that the last commission for the voices, by Aribert Reimann, was quite wonderful in showing off each voice type from its best side. Bumbry gives us a look and remarks: “Well, yes, but that was Reimann”. Nothing needs to be added, and isn’t.

The first session of the second day of the second round of singers began with Suyoun Kang (Korea). She noodled inoffensively enough through Mozart’s Laudamus Te, not very agile and with the high notes squeezed. The Rachmaninov song “Zdes horoso” (“Nice, here!”) suits almost every voice, but “Heart we will forget him” (John Woods Duke, not Copland) had no hint of ease, Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon” was similar to the Mozart while the Verdi aria from I Vespri showed no particular weakness and some strengths. Enough, apparently, for the jury to advance to the semi-finals.

Moon Yung Oh, from the Korea faction, and no doubt the strangest voice in the competition. A mild, small tenor that doesn’t sound impressive in the least and is—after a few seconds of adjustment—all the more welcome for not trying to impress. Nothing is more daring than to sing with a natural and unforced, vulnerable voice. And if it isn’t artistic choice but necessity forced upon him by his limited vocal material, it’s still remarkable that he doesn’t try to make more of it than it is. (Wise, too, since his voice immediately respond with an ungainly vibrato to any pressure.) That was true for Mozart’s Abendempfindung, and Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe at least, though he left the path of virtue behind for Schumann and Strauss.

Now if only his high notes were more secure, pronunciation better, delivery less stiff, his high notes steadier, and his timbre more pleasant I would have found his voice eminently worthy. Britten’s War Requiem (“One ever hangs…”) brutally exposed the weakness of his voice. What a shame that the best Lied-singer by method and temperament has such a clumsy voice. I love the approach, just don’t enjoy the result.

Elizabeth Bailey (UK) is a spunky coloratura with more dramatic talent than she knows what to do with. Hageman (“Do not go my love”) started well enough, and with “C’en est donc” from La Fille de Régiment (great diction and pronunciation—living in Geneva probably helps) matters steadily, further improved. There is an element of roughed velvet that comfortably softens the edge of her voice. There was coy artifice in Debussy’s “La romance d’Ariel”, earnest prettiness and natural clarity in Mozart’s “Et in carnatus”, and finally an appropriately exaggerated “Unschuld vom Lande” (the coquetry-par-excellence aria from Johann Strauss’ Fledermaus) that had the audiences in stitches about the acting and hollering ovations about the singing.

Korean Hye Jung Lee had to endure a much less sensitive pianist and could well have used any and all of that excess dramatic spark of Bailey’s. In Menotti’s “Telephone: Excuse, Hello” you have got to let loose a little, no matter how nicely sung. “Et in carnatus” was perfectly pleasant (though bland), as were Debussy’s “Apparition” and Argento’s “In just spring”. Ambrose Thomas’ “A vos jeux” from Hamlet was—excuse the pun—maddeningly piercing, the stuff that impresses people, and rightly so. And enough for the semi finals, too.

The rest of my day was dedicated to the six double basses that squeaked into the semi finals, four of which played Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D. The laudable, pitiable lads and lasses from the Munich Chamber Orchestra played their hearts out to support their young colleagues, but the fourth time around, even they could no longer hide the fact that Vanhal is no Mozart. Of the six semi-finalists, I had been unlucky enough to hear only two in the rounds before, and one of them not terribly convincing at that. Little wonder I didn’t have the best impression of the competition so far. Stanislau Anishchanka (Belarus), Gunars Upatnieks (Latvia), and Ivan Zavgorodniy changed that; Olivier Thiery I already knew was very fine. Jakub Fortuna, the youngest of the bunch and with a bright future, hinted at his promise, but was too tense to get beyond what had kept him from excelling so far. A beautiful tone, but not hitting the notes properly.

Anishchanka brought the most to Vanhal, joyous energy and accomplished vigor; Thiery elegance with his cello-like approach (not just as regards his bow grip), while Zavgorodniy convinced with a shyly-effusive interpretation. Upatnieks played the Dittersdorf Concerto in E and delivered the most moving slow movement. Szymon Marciniak played the Johann Matthias Sperger Concerto No.15 in D, but not well enough to have a shot at the final. The jury’s decision came swiftly and un-controversially, advancing Anishchanka, Thiery, Upatnieks, and Zavgorodniy to the finals with the BRSO.

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