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

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:

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:

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?




  1. “I believe a Handel competition in the United Kingdom already does forbid contestants from using “Messiah.” I agree with that. Let’s hear relatively unknown arias an expand our horizons.”

    True and false, if you are referring to the Handel Festival Singing Competition in London. True because arias from the Messiah are forbidden in the final competition, but not he earlier rounds; false in that the competition also consists of a first round and a semi final round where there is no such ban.

    See this link for the rules of the London Handel Singing Competition:

    Click to access Handel%20Singing%20Competition%202015%20Information%20&%20Criteria%281%29.pdf

    In a sense, then, you are comparing apples with oranges.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 21, 2015 @ 1:29 am

  2. “I was reporting on what many knowledgeable listeners said to me.”

    Maybe so but that is a poor excuse because perhaps the listeners you listened to were friends of a particular performer and they may have influenced you? Especially since there was also an “audience favorite” award (a point you neglected to respond to). If lots of people shared this opinion, why did someone else win that award?

    Yes, blogging is subjective and so is judging. But I think you original remarks about it in the blog were detrimental to the contest.

    As far as banning arias from the Messiah, I think Cheryl Rowe’s comment settles that point. And I suspect that were your position put to a vote of the classical music audience, you would lose overwhelmingly.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 21, 2015 @ 1:10 am

  3. In the initial planning of the Handel Aria Competition, we decided to include Messiah, because many young singers are not learning arias from this great oratorio of Handel.
    All the singers were wonderful, and the judges were truly impressed with all the finalist’s performances. It was not an easy decision. But, in their discussion after hearing everyone, the judges felt Sarah Brailey’s singing of Ferma l’ali was the stand out moment for singing technique, tone, musicality and polished professional performance.
    Truly, the entire evening was an embarrassment of riches!

    Comment by Cheryl Bensman-Rowe — July 20, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  4. Wonderful stuff except for 2 points on which I firmly disagree:

    First, this: You wrote, “Messiah” — which should be banned from the competition… ” Sorry, there are so many lovely moments of music in it and so many lovely arias, why ban his most famous work? If it was a Haydn festival instead, would you ban his best known/most recorded work? To me, that makes zero sense.

    Second, concerning your last comments and the judging. Some portion of audiences and competition judges will always have their discrepancies. The negative commentary about the judging was a low blow, especially since there was an audience favorite award.

    Handel was a wonderful musician and composer and his works deserve more attention and playing time. By the way, although he was an almost exact contemporary of his countryman, J.S. Bach, they never met.

    Thanks to all of the competitors and the individuals who put this competition on.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 20, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    • Hi and thanks for replying.

      About banning “Messiah”: The music from that oratorio is indeed beautiful, but it is too frequently heard. I believe a Handel competition in the United Kingdom already does forbid contestants from using “Messiah.” I agree with that. Let’s hear relatively unknown arias an expand our horizons.

      About the judging:
      A blog is a subjective genre, kind of like judging. My critisicism was definitely NOT a low blow. I was reporting on what many knowledgeable listeners said to me. And it so happened that I shared their opinion.

      But in no way do those points undercut or negate my enthusiasm for the Handel Aria Competition, and I think that came though in the posting.

      All the best,
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 20, 2015 @ 8:31 am

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