The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear thinks Handel Himmel is here to stay as the annual Handel Aria Competition matures into permanence.

July 20, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Thursday night, The Ear attended the annual Handel Aria Competition.

And once again, he found himself in Handel Himmel.

Handel etching

The contest – sometimes likened to a smack-down or a classical Baroque “American Idol” — is affiliated with, but not a part of, the Madison Early Music Festival.

This was the third year in a row for the competition, which was founded by local merchants and music patrons Dean and Orange Schroeder (below).

Carol %22Orange%22 and Dean Schroeder

Here is a link to a Q&A post in 2013 with Dean Schroeder discussing the genesis of the competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/classical-music-qa-organizer-dean-schroeder-talks-about-the-inaugural-handel-aria-competition-at-this-years-madison-early-music-festival-on-monday-night-july-8/

And it sure seems that, with more incremental improvements yet again this year, this third time could prove the charm in establishing the competition as a permanent event.

Here is a link to the competition’s home website with news of the winners soprano Sarah Brailey (first, below center), countertenor Andrew Rader (second, below right) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (third and audience prize, below left), the last of whom did graduate work at the UW-Madison School of Music:

http://handelariacompetition.com

Handel Aria winners 2015

For one, the attendance seemed bigger and applause sounded  louder than in the past two years. The word is out.

Handel Aria audience 2015

Also, the competition returned to Mills Hall, which has better seating, better sight lines and better acoustics — to say nothing of better restrooms — than Music Hall, where it was held last year.

Here are some other things The Ear especially liked about this year’s Handel Aria Competition:

The Madison Bach Musicians — with harpsichord, two violins, cello, viola and especially an oboe — accompanied the singers.

That felt much more authentic for opera and oratorios than the solo harpsichord the first year or the small group last year. It sounded great and added a depth that allowed you to really hear how Georg Frideric Handel bounced parts back and forth.

One organizer told me she hopes that the ensemble will return next year. The Ear hopes so too. Everybody hopes so. They did an outstanding job and added a lot.

Handel Aria 2015 Madison Bach Musicians

There were only seven contestants (below). Even so, the event started at 7:30 and ran until almost 10 p.m. That makes for a long night. Splitting them into four and three, then adding in time at the end for judging by the judges and the audience, made it more manageable than in previous years. But The Ear would like to see the finalists whittled down to five or six.

Handel Aria contestants 2015

This year also saw more unusual repertoire offerings. I heard less from such well-known works as, say, “Messiah” — which should be banned from the competition — and more from unusual works such as “La Resurrezione,” “Siroe Re di Persia,” “Orlando” and “Teseo.”

That helped me to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. (Listen to the lovely aria “Ferma l’ali” from “La Resurrezione” in a YouTube video at the bottom. It was the opening piece sung by winner Sarah Brailey.)

The contestants also seem to get more evenly matched and more professional every year, showing greater ease and better stage presence. That is probably only to be expected as news of the competition spreads among early music enthusiasts.

BUT: There was one sour note. I did hear some very strong complaints from quite a few very knowledgeable listeners that soprano Kristen Knutson (below) did not receive any prize.

Yet she seemed to possess the complete package. She demonstrated a strong and expressive voice, with great pitch and diction plus terrific ornamentation, and she showed a fine stage presence.

Was she shut out — or robbed, as one listener bluntly put it — because she went first? Whatever the reason, she deserved much better recognition than she got. The Ear hope she returns next year and does as well as she deserves to.

Handel Aria 2015 Kristen Knutson

What did you think of this year’s competition?

Of the performances and of the judging?

 

 


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