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MAJOR CHORDS | Prize Song: The New Art Song Competition Of Concours Musical International de Montreal 2018

By Joseph So on May 16, 2018

Christiane LeBlanc, General and Artistic Director General and CMIM, with James Norcop, Director of the Art Song Foundation of Canada (Photo: Courtesy of CMIM)
James Norcop, Director of the Art Song Foundation of Canada with Christiane LeBlanc, General and Artistic Director General of the CMIM (Photo: Courtesy of CMIM)

To voice fans, there’s nothing quite like a good old competition. Hands down, it’s the best place to hear up and coming singers with beautiful voices, some of them are destined to be the stars of tomorrow.  A new Anna Netrebko or Placido Domingo, anyone?

Of the many large-scale, internationally ranked singing competitions in existence, almost all of them focus on opera, with very few containing an art song component.  The prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World is a prime example. Others are on a smaller scale, such as the Lotte Lehmann League Art Song Contest and the Gerda Lissner Foundation Song Competition.

Now to that very short list you can add a biggie — the Concours Musical International de Montréal. This annual competition covers voice, violin and piano, on a rotating basis. Chant 2018 is the first time the voice competition has an art song division.  And at a total prize money of $265,000, it is the richest vocal competition in the world.

This new initiative is spearheaded by James Norcop.  Since coming to Canada in 1965 as Manager of the Vancouver Opera, the American-born Norcop, a former singer and art song enthusiast, has been a vital force in the Canadian classical music scene.  He served as Music Officer of the Ontario Arts Council, and he was instrumental in establishing the Art of the Song program at the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy.

For anyone who knows Jim, one is immediately struck by his passion for song, and for his remarkable support of young singers. He has established two prizes at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto: the Jim and Charlotte Norcop Prize in Song and the Gwendolyn Williams Koldofsky Prize in Accompanying.  Many recipients of these Prizes have gone on to significant careers.

Norcop is the driving force behind the Canadian Art Song Foundation an organization which provides financial support to singers and collaborative pianists who are Canadian citizens or landed immigrants, who have been accepted into an art-song program anywhere in the world. The list of previous recipients read like a who’s who in classical music — among them Adrianne Pieczonka, Karina Gauvin, Catherine Robbin, and James Westman.

With his passion for the genre and for nurturing young talent, it is hardly surprising that Norcop would be spearheading the establishment of an art song competition in Canada.  Starting something on such a large scale, with exceptionally large prize money for the laureates, cannot be an easy task. Recently I had a chat with James Norcop about his efforts in starting this song competition:

What inspired you to take this big step, of creating an art song division for CMIM?

Song is the highest culmination of the vocal arts, and I am not alone in thinking that.  But in competition, song has a low profile, while opera has a big profile. And competition attracts a lot of attention, and they’re very good (for the contestants).  Anybody who goes into a competition is already a winner — they put in months of preparation, which raised them up to a higher level than they were before. Even if they don’t get accepted they have won. And if they get in and get eliminated, they still would have won.

I agree. It certainly gives the young singers experience, and the training helps to hone their skills… 

The idea started with Liz Upchurch (pianist/coach and head of COC Ensemble Studio). She put together a beginning organization, an announcement and an idea, to honour her great mentor, Martin Isepp.  But given there’s tons of work involved, she sort of gave up. The idea festered in my mind afterwards, but raising money for classical music is not an easy task.

I believe it! Raising funds for the arts is never easy, is it…

Finally, I thought perhaps we could piggyback on the famous Montreal Competition. I went to the 2015 Competition and had an appointment with (Executive and Artistic Director) Christiane Leblanc. I had lunch with her, and I asked her if she would include a song competition within the framework.  Very few CMIM singers in the past did much with song; it’s all opera.  She liked the idea, went to the Board, they were enthusiastic. She came back to say — “we like the idea, as long as you raised $200,000!”  I raised the $200,000, to cover the cost of adding this division. From the beginning, I said the prize money in song has to be the same as the opera: the song division is not a stepchild.  They understood that right from the beginning.

Canadian soprano France Bellemare, third prize winner and the prize for best Canadian artist at the CMIM, 2015 (Photo courtesy of CMIM)
Canadian soprano France Bellemare, third prize winner and the prize for best Canadian artist at the CMIM, 2015 (Photo courtesy of CMIM)

Actually, by my calculation, the song division is higher, because of the addition of the $10,000 for the piano prize.

I insisted on the piano prize — after all, in song it is a 50/50 proposition. Pianists in competitions tend to get ignored. In CMIM, pianists cannot apply to enter the competition by themselves. Singers bring the pianist with them, and they are automatically entered into the competition if they are under 35.  This first edition, there are 12 pianists competing, with 3 Canadians.

I also noticed that the prizes invoke famous names from the past...

Yes. I also suggested naming the first three prizes after famous Canadians in song. This is because when people come from all over the world, some of these people probably think Maureen Forrester is American! The others are Leopold Simoneau, Lois Marshall, and John Newmark.

These are incredible prize monies. I can’t think of another competition with prize money like these. You also have a career development grant of $50,000. Why do you think this grant is important? 

It started with the Azrieli Foundation for piano (in CMIM) last year, and it will continue every year.  I thought it’s important to have one in song.  It’s good to win a competition and to get prize money, but there are lots of things financially that go beyond that. Like what happened to Maureen Forrester. J W McConnell, the publisher of the Montreal Star, gave Maureen I think $30,000 or $50 000, a great deal of money in those days. It meant that she could buy the right gown, go to Europe to audition, etc. Maureen never stopped thanking him publicly. With CMIM, they already are doing this, even before Azrieli Foundation came along. The Concours looks after their laureates, trying to find them engagements, etc. The career development grant means whoever wins the song prize, some of the money will go to cover the expenses of travel, to Europe for auditions, and advance study, etc., it all costs money.

How many applications did CMIM receive? 

358 for everything, of which about 200-225 for art songs.  Only two singers are competing in both: Canada’s mezzo Rihab Chaieb, and American baritone John Brancy. You need a lot of stamina to do both!

I noticed that there aren’t very many specific requirements. They have to do it in three languages, but there is no list of songs from which they have to choose. 

It’s not necessary in song. They do in opera because the music has to be available for the orchestra, and can’t be too obscure. These restrictions are not necessary in song. The one requirement is that everybody has to include one Schubert song.

Any other rules, in the choice of repertoire?  As to selections from different periods?  What if somebody picks all contemporary pieces?

It’s up to them.  You look at this extraordinary jury panel. They are looking at the singers, how they present themselves, how they put the program together. If somebody could do 100 percent contemporary, in the three languages, and can sell it and bring it off, why not?  The Concours has been fairly easy and open (as to rules).

In the past, there was a compulsory piece, an “imposed work.” Has it fallen by the wayside? 

A lot of competitions do that. There are arguments, in favour or against. You have to have a composer write a piece in a language where none of the competitors can speak. It’s not something that’s going into their repertoire. They had devoted a lot of time (to learning it). Is it worth it. There was one time that they used a wonderful song from Louis Riel, in Cree.  I think it was a good decision to get rid of it.

I noticed that there’s no gala concert this year.  Why is that?

The gala has disappeared; some people may regret that, but the money saved from the gala is providing money to use the orchestra for the semi-finals, a very important change.  You are looking at a group of singers who are the best in the world, but many may not have sung with orchestra that frequently.  Now in the semi-finals, they’ll have coaching with the conductor, a dress rehearsal, and then the performance.

Is the age limit the same for the art song and opera contestants?

Yes, it’s 35.  It used to be 33.

Glancing at the list of competitors, I see very few of them coming close to the upper age limit of 35. The majority cluster around 30 or younger. Having attended many competitions, it strikes me that, when all things being equal, the tendency is for a typical jury is to pick the younger singer…

[Laughs] We do like our youth!

It’s said that opera and song place different demands on a singer. Can you explain to us why that is? What are the differences between singing opera and art song?

I think there are two important differences. In opera, one is in costume, in a play that is already preordained, singing in a large hall with orchestra. In recital, a singer and pianist are alone on a smaller stage, naked without costume or scenery and they are required to create not just one, but many situations. Songs are like one-act plays and a recital can contain twenty or more. In opera, a singer creates one character; in song, many.

What do you think are the qualities or requirements to be a good singer of art song?  Beauty of tone? Technique? Musicality? Ability to communicate to an audience?

Beyond beauty of voice, technique and musicality, a singer must have something to say and be able to communicate it to an audience.

Thank you, Jim, for sharing your thoughts with us. And best wishes for a successful Chant 2018!

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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