The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear finds himself in Handel Himmel and enjoys the first Handel Aria Competition at the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival.

July 10, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

There I was, in Handel Himmel.

Several things made Monday night’s inaugural Handel Aria Competition at the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival so heavenly.

Handel etching

The audience turned out to be a large one – two-thirds or so of Mills Hall, by my estimate.  The audience also proved to be appreciative and enthusiastic.

The repertoire was great and introduced other listeners and me to some wonderful arias by George Frideric Handel (below) that I didn’t know since I am not a really big opera fan. I just loved hearing “Prophetic Raptures” and “Piangero la sorta mia” (in a YouTube video at bottom) from “Giulio Cesare.”

Most of all, I enjoyed the confident attitudes, the stage poise and the impressive achievements of all the contestants – eight finalists culled from 49 entrants across the U.S. and Canada. They included six women and two men; five sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, a tenor and a baritone.

Handel aria contestants MEMF 14

Curiously, there were no countertenors, a hot trend that has paralleled the Handel revival and, in general, the renewed interest in early music, period instruments and historically informed performances. Maybe next time.

But there were two outstanding harpsichordists to accompany the singers: bearded Ian Pritchard for the first half followed by the UW-Madison’s bow-tied John Chappell Stowe for the second half.

Here is a link to the official aria website and the list of finalists with their biographies:

One loyal reader of this blog worried about the effect of competition on the singers, of public humiliation. But the fear proved groundless. No one seemed visibly devastated by the competition. At the end, all of the singers applauded the winners and seemed happy (below), though I am sure there was some personal disappointment and professional disagreement.

Handel arias all applaud

But more than a competitive contest, the event seemed like a date at the optometrist’s to get a new eyeglass prescription. It was really more of a “contrast and compare” situation – which is better, A or B?

As you went along, contestant to contestant, you refined your own taste and appreciation of great Handel singing, and honed in on the very values that soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below left, with UW baritone and the other MEMF co-artistic director Paul Rowe), the co-artistic director of the 14 annual Madison Early Music Festival, had laid out at the beginning: authentic Baroque style, with original ornamentation during the repeats; beautiful sound with little or no vibrato; and emotional expressivity.

Handel arias Paul and Cheryl Rowe

It is always nothing short of amazing, as always, to see how, in singing, just as in acting and other performing arts, some performers just have it and seem larger-than-life as they jump across the stage barrier to reach you so directly that it feels they are speaking directly and only to you.

Did the talent level vary? Sure. Some singers need more study and experience. Some had voices that were too big for the Baroque style and the hall. But all overall, the quality was high, especially for a first-time  event. One suspects later editions of the aria sing-off to draw even more talented participants.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night for The Ear came from the omission of soprano Chelsea Morris (below) from the prize–winners.

Morris had a lovely clear but strong voice that could hold a note for long without wobbling; she performed agile and articulate ornamentation; and she connected with listeners using her eyes, face and hands. I sat among some very sophisticated opera fans and musicians, and I heard most of them say they were stunned that Morris did not walk away with a prize, preferably first prize.

Handel arias Chelsea Morris

But the three judges (below, studying scores) apparently did not see it that way. It would be interesting to know what the judges – guests singers soprano Ellen Hargis (middle) and tenor William Hudson (left) as well as Madison’s won critic and retired history professor John W. Barker (right) – had in mind and why they didn’t like Morris’ performance so much.

Handel judges MEMF 14

Anyway, here were the final results:

First Prize went to mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland, ( below), who sang “Doppo note” from “Ariodante”; and the Recitative “O Bright Example of goodness” and aria “As with Rosy Steps the Morn” from “Theodora.”

Handel arias Elisa Sutherland

Second Prize went to soprano Alison Wahl (below), who sang the aria “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from “Giulio Ceasre” and the Recitative “The Might Master Smiled to See” and the Aria “War, He Sung, Is Toil and Trouble” from “Alexander’s Feast.”

Handel arias Alison Wahl

Third Prize and the Audience Prize both went to soprano Winnie Nieh (below) who sang “Farewell ye Limpid Springs” from “Jephtha” and “Da tempeste il legno infranto” form Giulio Cesare.” 

Handel arias Winnie Nieh

I understand from the sponsors of this inaugural but hopefully annual event, who are Madison small businesspeople Dean and Orange Schroeder of Orange Tree Imports, that a CD and DVD of the competition are in the works.

Enough money was raised through donations at the competition, says Orange Schroeder, to guarantee the CD and DVD. So now if you go to the  fundraising sites  for the Arts Wisconsin fund and the Dane Arts’ power2give and help them out, the money will go into a fund to support future competitions and perhaps pay travel stipends to contestants. Here are the links:

What did you think of the event?

Were you pleased with the judges’ results? Who did you think should have won?

Tell us. The Ear wants to hear.

Then, like The Ear, sit back, dig out some Handel CDs and look forward to next summer’s Handel aria competition.

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