It’s that time of year again! I am referring to the Concours musical international de Montreal. It has been taking place annually since 2002 in rotation between Voice, Violin and Piano. It’s voice this year, and for the first time, there is the addition of an Art Song Division.
This year, the jury panel is particularly distinguished, with such luminaries as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Ben Heppner, Soile Isokoski and Dame Felicity Lott. At a total prize money of $270,000 CDN, it is the richest voice competition in the world.
CMIM 2018 opened yesterday with the First Round of the Art Song competition, in two sessions of eight singers each. Session 1: David Tayloe, tenor (USA); Suzanne Fischer, soprano (UK); Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone (New Zealand-UK); Irina Jae-Eun Park, soprano (South Korea); Axelle Fanyo, soprano (France); Magali Simard-Galdes, soprano (Canada); Rihab Chaieb, mezzo (Canada-Tunisia); Gemma Summerfield, soprano (UK). Session 2: Hagar Sharvit, mezzo (Israel-Germany); John Brancy, baritone (USA); Suzanne Taffot, soprano (Canada-Cameroon); Tomi Punkeri, baritone (Finland); Anna-Sophie Neher, soprano (Canada-Germany); Satriya Krisna, tenor (Indonesia), Clara Osowski, mezzo (USA); Mengxi You, soprano (China).
Before giving my impressions of the First Round, I should say that I was not present in Salle Bourgie but was listening through the live stream. (I will be reporting on location for the Semifinals and Finals of the Arias Division June 4 – 7)
In terms of voice, expression, musicality, and communicative power, the quality of the candidates in this First Round were impressive. No wonder — these sixteen singers were chosen from a total of 469 applications representing 52 countries. These are the cream of the crop. Often the difference between the winner and the also-rans boils down to minor issues of vocal production or finer points of interpretation. And then there are the intangibles — I’m referring to the individual preference of each jury panel member.
Each singer performed a maximum of fifteen minutes, anywhere from a minimum of three to five or even six songs, depending on length. I enjoyed all the performances. The ones that stood out for me included tenor David Tayloe, in a program of Schubert, Finzi, and Hugo Wolf, songs well suited to his beautiful lyric tenor. Particularly lovely was Schubert’s “Im Fruhling,” the very first song of the afternoon. A Schubert song is a requisite in this competition, so there was a surfeit of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” among the women!
Indeed, most stuck to the tried and true, with the occasional rarity, such as Korean soprano Irina Jae Eun Park choosing an angular and dramatic piece by Aribert Reimann. Hers is a pure, well focused if slightly fluttery lyric soprano. Her best moment was a lovely “O quand je dors,” with a nice pianissimo ending. French soprano Axelle Fanyo impressed with rich tone and sang a beautiful Copeland song. Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaieb, a former COC Ensemble member and now a Met Lindemann artist, is sounding better than ever – her “Death and the Maiden” a standout. The first half concluded with UK soprano Gemma Summerfield, who impressed with beautiful, gleaming tone, including an excellent “Ganymed.”
The evening session also had eight contestants, with a few singers who have had successes in previous competitions. Top on the list was American lyric baritone John Brancy. In Schubert’s “Nachtstück,” Brancy showed off his legato and mezza voce, and he had all the requisite dramatic intensity for Debussy’s “Noel des enfants.” Mezzo Clara Osowski, another successful contestant at other competitions, sang beautifully songs by Schubert, Poulenc and Britten, though a bit too serious and earnest in her delivery – I would have preferred greater variety of tone colours and a lightness of touch. Canadian soprano Anna Sophie Neher’s rendition of “Auf dem wasser zu singen” was very fine. We’ll be hearing more of Neher, who’s joining the COC Ensemble this fall.
The announcement came around ten o’clock – the eight singers chosen to advance to the semifinals are Gemma Summerfield, John Brancy, Irina Jae Eune Park, Rihab Chaieb, Julien Van Mellearts, Clara Osowski, Axelle Fanyo, Tomi Punkeri. Interestingly, Van Mellearts was already in T-shirts and shorts when he was called to go up to the stage – how’s that for a relaxed attitude!
For us audience members, either in Salle Bourgie or over the web, part of the fun is to come up with our own list of winners. I can say I had on my list six of the eight candidates picked by the CMIM jury. It often boils down to a matter of individual preferences by the jury members.
James Norcop, the driving force behind the newly created Art Song Division, sums it up the best: “Anybody who goes into a competition is already a winner. They put in months of preparation, which raised them up to a higher level. Even if they don’t get accepted they have won. And if they get in and get eliminated, they still have won.”