A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 18, 2014
01:55 PMClassically Speaking
Handel Aria Competition Produces More Winners Than Prizes
PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIK SCHROEDER
Handel Aria Competition winners Daniel Moody (second place) Chelsea Morris (first place) and Yukie Sato (third place)
I still can’t say I’ve been to an official event of the Madison Early Music Festival (yes, that’s a major “tsk, tsk”), but at least I attended the Handel Aria Competition. Launched by Orange and Dean Schroeder last year, the event is now a partner of the MEMF—and may become something of a crown jewel event, if Thursday night’s performances were any indication. The owners of Orange Tree Imports are fanatics about the vocal music of Handel, and the Schroeders not only know how to run an iconic Madison business, but they have the touch for competitive singing, too. The seven finalists performing at the Music Hall came from literally all over: Tokyo (via Basel, Switzerland), Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Beijing, and oh yes, the Madison area.
The overall quality made one wonder at one point what we didn’t hear. Sixty applicants were pared down to thirty, then fifteen (via different adjudicators), and the original plan was to present six, but the third group of judges had to make it seven. Each of the finalists, save one, sang in both Italian and English, with Handel’s substantial array of both Italian opera and English oratorios well represented. Reports were that last year the singers were accompanied by harpsichord, but this year there was a superb ensemble of two violins, cello and harpsichord, with players not only experienced in the MEMF, but a number of other similarly prestigious events. The singing alone would have made the night memorable, but the addition of the ensemble added immeasurably to the overall experience, for the singers as well as the substantial audience.
So what happened? Yukie Sato, a recent graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts and already a prize winner in the 2013 International Early Music Vocal Competition in Poznan, Poland, matched solid acting to radiant vocalism in an aria from Alcina and a scintillatingly accurate “Rejoice greatly” from Messiah.
Michael Roemer was more stand-in-place in his delivery, and may have had a memory slip in his aria from Samson, but his vocalism there and in the preceding number from Berenice shows promise in its richness and unforced projection.
Nan Li is an exciting contralto from Beijing, now based in New York, and the creaminess of her sound in an aria from Semele was nicely balanced by a central section of great intensity in “Cara sposa” from Rinaldo.
The first half closed with soprano Chelsea Morris, and by the time she had dispatched her entries from Alessandro and Semele, the enthusiastic audience seemed glad to have read in the program bio that she will spend the upcoming year as a Studio Artist with Madison Opera.
Daniel Moody was the only countertenor among the finalists, and gave evidence that an exciting career may be just around the corner. In a recitative and aria from Rodelinda, Moody delivered a sustained note that was all but mesmerizing in its intensity and changing colors as he shaped it, and the stand alone aria “Se piu non t’amo” was full bodied and assertive.
Tenor Daniel Shirley was the one singer that immediately made me feel I wanted to hear him in other vocal styles—and we will, as he will be part of the Overture Center’s Tenth Anniversary program, and appear as Anthony in Sweeney Todd this year with Madison Opera. On a night when the standards for diction were uniformly excellent, Shirley took top honors.
Soprano Sarah Brailey already has a New York Times blurb hailing her “radiant, liquid tone,” but on this note her top notes were less focused than one would want, although her version of the full recitatives preceding “Rejoice greatly” from Messiah full of palpable joy and vocal sparkle.
And so the waiting for the decision of the judges (Kristina Boerger, Drew Minter, Ian Pritchard and Nell Snaidas—major experts all) began. The prizes were cash awards of $1,000, $750 and $500, but the first order of business was the voting for Audience Favorite, that prize being tuition for next year’s MEMF. Even at that basic level of adjudication, it felt slightly absurd to pick out one’s own favorite (and it was announced that every singer had received audience votes); it was no surprise to see that the official judges’ deliberations stretched from the expected fifteen minutes to half an hour. But few left, and the time passed profitably with some improvisatory Q&A with program director Sarah Marty.
When the big moment finally came, Chelsea Morris was named Audience Favorite, Sato was earned third place, Moody took second, and Morris won first prize. National attention in the last year or so for the MEMF has clearly marked it as yet another event that has helped boost Madison’s standing as a musical destination of significance. With the quick success of the Handel Aria Competition, it may not be long before it becomes one of the toughest tickets in town—with the audience as geographically diverse as the participants.