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.


  1. I agree with Irmgard and was puzzled by the judging. I didn’t have a program until the second half, and took detailed notes on the 2nd half and wrote down what I could remember from the first half. The singing was quite uneven. Some suffered from wayward pitch and tempos that were too slow, especially in Piangerò, where the A section incorporates a descending tetrachord lament bass. Movements in triple meter often ignored the hemiola at cadences, sometimes causing misaccentuation. Some needed to think in larger metrical units. I don’t understand why someone would not trill at cadences the first time through the A section of a da capo/segno aria. There is no need to “withhold” ornaments altogether in the A section the first time. Trills are obligatory at cadences. The improvisations at the end of the da capos were sometimes awkward and abrupt (and sometimes lovely). Dance tempi for arias based on dances were sometimes fine and sometimes not.

    Comment by earlymusicmusician — July 14, 2013 @ 1:04 am

  2. Wouldn’t it be nice next year if there were a reception after the contest? It would give the audience a chance to met the performers and give them additional feedback on their singing. It would really make a nice ending to the evening. Any chance this could happen?

    Comment by Elizabeth Conklin — July 12, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    • There was a reception for festival participants following the competition.

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — July 21, 2013 @ 1:47 am

      • But I think it was by invitation only and not for the general public, which I expect the reader means.
        It was in the ground floor outside courtyard in front of Mills Hall.
        Perhaps I am wrong.
        But I think a public reception, done in the hallway to Mills, as the Wisconsin Union Theater did it for The Knights chamber orchestra, would only add to the fun and festivity.

        Comment by welltemperedear — July 21, 2013 @ 6:46 am

  3. Judging from the comments here and the blog itself, I wasn’t wrong about the competition factor dominating the performance (even the Ear catches the spirit, referring to the singers as “contestants” rather than “artists”). However, I yield on the major point. This appears to have been very good for building a musical audience, good for wrapping some fresh ears around Handel, good for giving some young singers credits for their resumes, and good for tapping that Big Ten campus enthusiasm. Purists can always go to a Handel opera or oratorio or any number of individual Mjusic Department recitals. Or they can put on a recording.

    Maybe there needs to be a separate men’s competition, since the guys came up empty.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — July 11, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

  4. The best thing about it–besides the glorious voices and great accompanying–was the intense involvement of the audience–there were thoughts and opinions and I found out things about how various people listen to music that I had no idea were there. My ear is not sophisticated enough to appreciate the differences in ornamentation and phrasing and stylistic purity, which is what I imagine the judges were looking for. So I wasn’t too surprised that their choices were different. To my mind, Alison Wahl had fine voice and style but lost control in the climactic parts, a deal breaker for me. I was more impressed with Saira Frank than with winner Sutherland–her smoothness in hitting some interval passages was like Babcock ice cream. As for judging by attire, I can’t agree with that–the gowns and suits and hair and stage presence were all wonderful. Especially in Madison where no one dresses up for anything, it was a treat to watch this. I think we cannot thank enough Dean and Orange for making their idea a reality and I can’t wait for next year. We definitely need to recruit more male voices–how about a lucious counter tenor and a solid bass. . .

    Comment by Mary Gordon — July 11, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  5. I thought that Chelsea Morris should have gotten first place. She sang so well: wonderful pianissimo singing; lovely long notes with great dynamic variation; good fiatura; beautiful tone; and at the end of the Piangero, the audience was absolutely still for seconds in awe of the presentation. She showed them all how Baroque singing should be done. It was impressive.


    Comment by kathryn hoyt — July 10, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

  6. […] Review by Well-Tempered Ear blogger Jake Stockinger: Classical music: The Ear finds himself in Handel Himmel and enjoys the first Handel Aria Competition… […]

    Pingback by Davis, Jutt receive awards; Early Music Fest inspires & entertains « Fanfare! — July 10, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  7. I am pleased to hear you feel Chelsea Morris was overlooked as a winner, as I certainly agree. I was delighted by Alison Wahl’s joyous stage presence, but when Chelsea Morris followed, her communication was so strong and her voice was fuller and more supported.
    Chelsea Morris was my choice, along with Winnie Nieh, who had gorgeous tone and excellent communication. What a delightful evening it was!
    Margaret Ingraham

    Comment by Margaret Ingraham — July 10, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

  8. The event was very successful. Great Music and good turn out. The judging was peculiar. My wife and I decided they chose the winners on the basis of their attire. We liked Chelsea Morris who had great dynamic control and beautiful expression, Caitlin Shirley who also had beautiful expression, and Winnie Nieh who had a fabulous voice. Her first aria was stunning.

    Music competitions are a great showcase for talent and undoubtedly generate audience excitement. Unfortunately they can also promote a circus atmosphere and are susceptible to the vagaries of judging.

    Comment by Andrew Fondrk — July 10, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  9. I totally agree with Mikko’s opinion. Did not understand the selection of Alison Wahl’s as the second place winner. I thought she really had pitch problems. Even singers are exspected to sing always in tune.

    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — July 10, 2013 @ 8:04 am

  10. It seems a little futile to play armchair judge after the fact, but I shared your questions about the results. While Sutherland’s singing was indeed marvelous, I felt it was surpassed by both Morris and Nieh, one of whom should have taken first and the other second (the order I couldn’t argue persuasively without hearing them again). Morris’ expression was clear and passionate at all times, her tone impeccable; Nieh likewise, especially on her first number – I find her second, Dal tempeste, a little jarring on its own, but I could hardly fault her excellent delivery.

    In the end, I was left wanting an explanation more than anything – I could accept the judges’ selections if they were explained, and if we (or the singers!) had been told the exact criteria on which they were evaluated. Going simply by the list Cheryl provided for the audience, I found myself as unable as you to justify the final rankings.

    The real star of the evening may have been Ian Pritchard, whose accompaniment was nothing short of miraculous. The range of color he drew from the instrument was incredible, and he adjusted instantly to anything the singers threw his way, deftly imitating their ornaments in the da capo sections – and all this on half an hour of rehearsal!

    Best of all, though, was the size and enthusiasm of the audience, much of which was NOT the same crowd of early music enthusiasts that generally patronize MEMF concerts. Anything that will draw a new audience into this music is worth supporting. A warm thanks to Dean and Orange for starting what I hope will become a beloved tradition!

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — July 10, 2013 @ 12:16 am

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