This was a vocal competition with a twist. The repertoire was all baroque and the prizes were the soloist spots in upcoming performances of Zelenka’s Missa Omnium Sanctorum. To some extent that dictated the format with three bass-baritones, three tenors and three altos (two mezzos and a countertenor) competing and a prize winner in each triad. Each singer had to offer the appropriate piece from the Zelenka Mass plus a piece of their choice by each of Bach and Handel. I did wonder whether I would get through an afternoon of twenty seven baroque vocal pieces but aided by free pizza and cookies I made it. At least, for once, I was at a singing competition where nobody would be singing Pierrot’s Tanzlied.
The competitors were young professional singers rather than students and the standard pretty much reflected that. The choice of repertoire was a bit weird as there was a very clear English/Italian split on the Handel and it’s not easy to compare between the two. Add to that, only a couple of singers sounded truly at home with Bach.
As seems always to be the case, I found at least one of the judges’ decisions rather perplexing but I’ll come back to that after the easier stuff. The tenor winner was Zach Finkelstein. He’s a rather English sounding early music tenor with excellent musicianship; not afraid to to hang onto the dissonances in the Bach for example. His Handel was very nice too with some beautifully floated high pp. I did feel he was maybe overacting in the Zelenka. There are just only so many ways you can inflect the two words “Christe eleison”. I had him absolutely level on my card with Quebec tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier who wasn’t quite as precise but had a rather bigger voice and better legato though he did crack on a few high notes which made me wonder if he maybe had a cold. His Waft her, angels from Jeptha was very beautiful. Could have gone either way.
It was pretty close in the baritone stakes too. The judges went for New York based Jonathan Woody. He has a big but quite beautiful voice with excellent legato and pretty decent coloratura. His English diction is pretty decent too. I marked him down a bit for being overly histrionic, though I accept that’s a matter of taste, and truly weird German diction but that didn’t bother the judges. I thought he was edged out by David Rugger who was much more idiomatic in both the Zelenka Agnus dei and, especially, The Bach Cantata 127. This was perhaps the most idiomatic and comfortable Bach singing of the afternoon. But, I accept, not as beautiful or powerful as Woody and his See the raging flames didn’t have the oomph of Woody’s Why do the nations.
Where I was shaking my head was in the alto category. The one singer of the whole session who really made me sit up in my seat was American countertenor Andrew Rader. His Zelenka was classy and expressive. In his Bach piece he nailed the runs with a precision that no-one else matched and his Empio, dirò, tu sei from Giulio Cesare was accurate, powerful, indeed thrilling. Throughout he displayed wonderful legato and an easy tone and seemed to have plenty more in the tank. I’d very much like to see more of him. The judges (and the audience) preferred mezzo Kim Leeds. She was good. Her Zelenka combined power and control. Her Bach, I thought, was a bit of a snooze with some weird intonation but I’m sure what won it for her was a powerful and dramatic Crude furie degli horridi abissi from Serse. It was a crowd pleaser but not nearly enough to lift her above Rader in my book. Had Tafelmusik decided in advance that they wanted a mezzo rather than a countertenor? Who knows.
Finally, no praise can be too high for Christopher Bagan and his iPad who provided accompaniment on harpsichord or organ for all twenty seven pieces in quite exemplary style. He should have got a prize too!