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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition, Day 10 - Semi Finals Voice

Wednesday, Day 10 of the ARD Competition. With all the preliminary rounds (and the double bass competition) over, the quality of performances and the stakes increase steadily. Before the semi finals in voice—five candidates in the early afternoon, four in the evening—got under way, I spoke to three of four American jury members—Julie Kaufmann, Cheryl Studer, and Irwin Gage (Grace Bumbry is the fourth)—about what the differences are between the way an audience and singers hear singers. All agreed that the difference is enormous and that it explains the discrepancy between the expectations of the audience as to who advances and who actually does.

“We don’t listen to the whole, we scrutinize every element, technique especially” says Cheryl Studer. “In fact, it is really difficult for me to enjoy a concert as such, because I always listen to singers as a singer. It’s a bit like eating a meal and analyzing every ingredient instead of enjoying the dish in its sum.” Julie Kaufmann shrugs apologetically and to the agreement of the other two points out that when it comes to judging a singer, “someone who isn’t a professional singer simply hasn’t a clue what to listen for and how to assess it.” They point out that the differences between competition singing and singing on stage are huge, because judges don’t want to hear an interpretation, per se, and are not looking for the individual take on a work (at the expense of character, the part the audience likes best), but to sound out the voice for weaknesses, to assess the technique, and, yes, perhaps hear its strengths, too.

But if that’s the case, what does winning a competition actually prepare one for? More competitions? Gage (who charmingly grumbles about the decline in general quality, preparation, and understanding of what the singers are performing) and the perpetually perky Kaufmann explain that a[prize like the ARD is supposed to give singers that little push who have the foundation (read: technique) for a lasting and successful career, rather than having the charisma for the stage. They are also wary of a voice already developed in a specific way, but the grain of self destruction (or lack of the last bit of potential) present. The wines that age best are not necessarily those tastiest when drunk young, I gather.

The conversation also helps understand the results after sitting through the two semi-final session for voice at the Prinzregententheater. Elizabeth Bailey, the British soprano with the stage bug internalized, would have had every chance at the audience prize in the finals. In her smashing, fire-engine red dress, donned up in aloof, bronze-toned perfection, she invariably enchants even if she does not endear. Popsicle magnificence! If there is a problem at all, it’s that everything seems so painstakingly applied, the coyness and the joy is donned a bit too consciously. Not that I or most anyone in the audience would have cared: Her Verdi (Gilda’s “Caro nome” from Rigoletto) was a polished product with all the qualities of beauty and accuracy present. My colleague looked in vain for subtlety and the unsure tenderness that epitomizes Gilda’s first experience with the sensation of (ill fated) love. I looked at the red dress, instead, which was more rewarding.

Bailey didn’t quite know what to do with her hands in Mozart’s “Ruhe sanft”, so they went up and down like a paternoster lift which made her look like Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann. Come Bernstein’s “Glitter and be gay”, though, she was in her element. Never mind it’s much more an audience-pleaser than a jury-pleaser or that it could gain from articulation through the voice, not just facial expressions, it should have been very nice to see Bailey in the final again for sheer entertainment purposes—especially given some of the other candidates who did make the next and last round. We’ll undoubtedly see her on stage, instead.

I would have liked to see tenor Emilio Jiménez Pons (Mexico) again, too. After not liking what I heard in the first round from him, I’m slowly warming to his dignified, earnest elegance, his saturated, very notably distinctive voice, and don’t even mind the full-mouthed sound or the slight speech-impediment on “sh” and “z” sounds. Since all singers first performed with the very remarkably playing Munich Radio (Symphony) Orchestra (not to be mistaken with its bigger, famous cousin, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and only then with piano accompaniment, Pons just performed Handel’s “Waft her, angels, through the skies” (Jephta) before Anita Watson appeared with “Depuis le jour” (Charpentier’s Louise), “The trees on the mountains are cold and bare” (Floyd’s Susannah), and Weber’s “Wie nahte mir der Schlummer” (Freischütz). In all those, the orchestra’s experience in this repertoire showed under the so obviously sensitive leadership of John Fiore.

Anita Watson (Australia) cemented her status as favorite impressively. Sure, she could use a healthy dose of Bailey’s spark, seeing that in build and expression she reminds more of her famous namesake Linda Watson, but she radiates genuine joy while performing which is heartwarming enough (for now). Her voice, too, is nearly Linda Watson’s in size, except pleasant to listen to and with a warm hue—even glow—in Charpentier. Her singing—one could not speak of an interpretation—of John Woolrich’s “A Singing Sky” was just the notes; even less engaging than Baily’s take of it, but then the jury probably didn’t care, given that their opinion of the work (at least those I have spoken to about it) isn’t one fit to reprint.

Woolrich is where I have to come back to Mexican tenor Pons, because after the romantic-baroque all-out-ear-pleasing Reynaldo Hahn song “A Chloris”, Schubert (“Dioskuren”) of a very learned beauty, and a less fortunate “Der Hidalgo” (Schumann), it was his turn to tackle the commissioned, required composition. Visibly and even audibly nervous and well out of his comfort zone (not the least because of his troubles with English pronunciation), he tackled the work with the abandon of blind fear. The result was an astounding transformation. Pons desperately made music out of Woolrich’s absurdist (or more likely: absurd) piece, he clung to melody where there had previously not been any, and he gave the rigid and gangly lines groove and swing not even the composer could possibly have imagined existed. Instead of hampering his efforts, his odd pronunciation ended up helping the piece, unwittingly giving it that bit of silliness it needed with a goldfish instead of a goldfinch fluttering in the ear. “I dream and I write… I drink and I sing… and time passes. My sing [sic!] is empty, I sing with my eyes. A bird hops in his cage, a bird, a bird sings. It is going to, it is going to die. To love music. To love music above all else, to love music to love music above all else means unhappiness.”

Sunyoung Seo (soprano, Korea), who looks like cast of molten marzipan (and an ecru dress to go with it), is a solid and juicy soprano, whose Stravinsky (“No word from Tom”) was incomprehensible, accuracy in her coloraturas of secondary importance, the raw material of her voice perhaps a bit unformed, but then again: what raw material it is! “Dich, teure Halle…” (“Dear hall, I greet thee again” Wagner, Tannhäuser) might have scared poor Tannhäuser away rather than welcome him, but it was awesome in its own, peculiar way. Too bad the hall caved in, afterwards. Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass, Germany), stood there for Handel and Verdi, let his voice—low, full, but hoarse during Woolrich, later—do the work for him and barked about with little motivation. One could never have told the artist beneath the indifferent veneer, had he not put down a marvelous “How wonderful is the music (and how much nicer, still, when it is over)” from Richard Strauss’ Die Schweigsame Frau. Both made it into the finals.

Hye Jung Lee (Korea) is more a sparrow-type soprano compared to her preceding countrywoman, and she can move around with ease and sweetness where appropriate. She wasn’t kept out of the finals by herEngrish performance of the Woolrich piece. Minsub Hong, the last tenor standing, was the only Korean not to make the cut; deservedly so, since none of his songs (Poulenc, R.V.Williams, Beethoven, Schubert) or the aria from Verdi’s requiem hinted at the quality I heard from him in the first round. By the timeSunyoun Kang came on, lack of concentration made it difficult to look beyond the fact that “No word from Tom” should only be enjoyed so many times a day and that Otto Nicolai’s “Nun eilt herbei” (The Merry Wives of Winsor) was treated to some odd German pronunciation. There was nice Handel to be had along the way, though, and after talking to the jury I’ve in any case stopped wondering who gets into the finals, and why.

I would have agreed on Falko Hönisch’s advancing, though. His stage mannerism (Wolfgang Holzmairstyle) and Dr.Faust-style frock-coat struck as a bit put on, but who cares when “Lord, God of Abraham” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah (the German version) sounds so superb? Strauss, Schubert, and Wolf songs were fine, too, and John Woolrich’s “A Singing Sky” was treated to a absolutely superb performance. (I liked Pons’ accidental groove still better, but this was premeditated, highly intelligent excellence.) In William Bolcom’s catchy number “Song of Black Max” Hönisch got to display his abundant stage experience at the opera houses of Kassel and Darmstadt. The finals are taking place today, with Hönisch and Schwinghammer first, then Watson, Suyoun, Kang, Hye Jung Lee, and Sunyoung Seo.

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