The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

Classical music: The Handel Aria Competition fundraiser for the 15th annual Madison Early Music Festival next summer will be held this coming Saturday night.

November 5, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the highlights of last summer’s 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival was the smack down-type contest of arias from the Baroque operas by George Frideric Handel (below), which are enjoying a renewed popularity.

Handel etching

The first annual Handel Aria Competition was sponsored by long-time early music patrons and local businesspeople Dean and Orange Schroeder. They own and operate Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street. Moreover, Dean Schroeder studies voice and sings Handel arias.

Carol %22Orange%22 and Dean Schroeder

In case you missed it or have forgotten about it– below is picture of all the contestants on the stage at the end of the competition — here are links to posts with a preview interview with Dean Schroeder and a review of the actual competition.

Handel arias all applaud

The competition last July also was turned into CDs and DVDs. Say the Schroeders: “We have a good supply of the double CD sets from the Handel Aria Competition (not so many DVDs), so we’re happy to make them available to the public for $20 each.

Anyone who wants one could e-mail us at, and we’d put one on hold at the store.  If someone wanted to call or write, the contact info is below. Any proceeds will help defray the cost of the professional recording of the concert, and the creation of videos for the finalists to use to promote their careers.

This is all by way of introduction to a fundraiser this weekend to help support next summer’s Handel Aria Competition (last summer’s was even featured and linked to on Metropolitan Opera soprano and Handel enthusiast Natalie Dessay’s website.)

The Schroeders write:

“The Handel Aria Competition is sponsoring “An Evening of Handel, With Flare” on Saturday as a fundraiser for next year’s competition, which will be held in conjunction with the Madison Early Music Festival on July 17, 2014.

“It is our hope that we will be able to offer travel grants to finalists who have to fly to Madison in order to compete, and also to fund the recording of the 2014 Handel Aria Competition next July.

“The 2013 first prize winner, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland (below), is returning to Madison to perform inAn Evening of Handel, With Flare” on Saturday, November 9 at First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, in the Landmark Auditorium, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, at 7:30 p.m.

elise sutherland

She will be joined by many singers with UW-Madison and Madison ties –: Mimmi Fulmer, Melanie Cain, Rachel Edie Warrick, Rachel Eve Holmes, Susanna Beerheide and Christina Kay — for a concert of Handel arias and duets (with a bit of Monteverdi thrown in for good measure).

The singers will be accompanied by Kirstin Ihde (below top) on harpsichord and Anton TenWolde (below bottom) on cello.

Kirsten Ihde

anton tenwolde

Tickets are $25 each, and are available at Orange Tree Imports in advance or at the door the evening of the concert.  For more information, go to: or call (608) 255-8211.

The program, with timings, includes:

  1. Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano: Dopo Notte from Ariodante                   6:30
  2. Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano: Cara speme from Giulio Cesare           6:00
  3. Melanie Cain, soprano and Rachel Eve Holmes, soprano: Oh Lovely Peace from the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus            4:00
  4. Melanie Cain, soprano: Ombra mai fu from Serse                                       3:30
  5. Rachel Eve Holmes, soprano: O Sleep Why Dost Thou Leave Me from Semele 3:30
  6. Rachel Edie Warrick, soprano:  Piangero la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare 6:30
  7. Rachel Edie Warrick, soprano: Oh, Had I Jubal’s Lyre from the oratorio Joshua 3:00
  8. Christina Kay,  soprano: Neghittosi, or voi che fate? from Ariodante         3:30
  9. Mimmi Fulmer, soprano and Susanna Beerheide, mezzo-soprano, singing the final duet from L’incoronazione di Poppea (by Monteverdi)                            4:30
  10. Susanna Beerheide, mezzo-soprano, Scherza infida from Ariodante       10:00

Encore: Elisa Sutherland: As with rosy steps the dawn from Theodora          6:00 

Below is a You Tube video of the encore piece, which helped Elisa Sutherland win the First Prize at last summer’s Handel Aria Conpetition:

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.

Classical music: Are classical music fans getting too much of a good thing? April was a rich month for music in Madison -– too rich for even a conscientious critic and fan to catch it all. Is there any solution or compromise to help correct the unfairness to audiences and performers?

May 1, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

It is May Day – the globally recognized day for celebrating labor and work. And making art – specifically, making music — is work not just for the musicians but increasingly for Madison audiences. In that spirit, here is a special posting, a provocative essay meant to spark discussion that was written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

In his years in Paris, the great humorist Art Buchwald used to write an annual column describing an imaginary marathon he called something like the “One-Minute-Louvre.” This portrayed athletic tourists who could manage to visit, within a single minute, three of the greatest objects in that vast museum: the statues of Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory, plus the Mona Lisa painting — all within one minute, mind you.

That is what Madison’s musical life has come to seem like — a marathon of overlapping and conflicting events that pile up impossibly. It is like drowning in riches. The riches are undeniable, and fabulous, but it is drowning nevertheless.

And nowhere is this more true than in the weeks just past. “April is the cruelest month,” opined T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” and April this year has seemed to me the worst I have ever experienced for schedule train wrecks and mid-air collisions.  So many events deserve attention and reporting, but as both a critic and a music lover, I am sure that I share with many Madisonians a feeling of battle fatigue.  Let me just sketch out — still leaving out many smaller concerts — what I myself have tried to keep up with.

The weekend of April 19-21 began the mounting pressures.  I had to be out of town overnight on the 19th (my daughter made her theatrical debut in Wausau), which meant that I had to miss the first of the two Beethoven programs by Parry Karp and Eli Kalman (below top) at Farley’s House of Pianos. I returned on the 20th, but still had to miss the afternoon performance of the Perlman Piano Trio.  And, that evening, I had to sacrifice the student recital (at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center) of the wonderful young violist and budding conductor Mikko Utevsky (below bottom) — that so I could catch the first performance of the Madison Bach Musicians, which I reviewed for this blog.

Parry Karp and Eli Kalman

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

Attending that performance, rather than the second one on the 21st, allowed me to catch the second and last of the Karp-Kalman Beethoven cycle at Farley’s (and it was wonderfully worthwhile!).  Before that, however, I made it to a program at Music Hall on the campus in the earlier afternoon in which three splendid products of the University of Wisconsin School of Music (Emily Birsan (below top), Jamie Van Eyck (below bottom) and John Arnold) showed their gratitude to the Paul Collins Fellowship. Of course, that meant sacrificing a production of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” at Edgewood College that same afternoon.

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Jamie Van Eyck

That weekend was stern preparation for the most recent one, April 26-28.  As a prelude I had to miss the UW Opera Scenes program on Wednesday evening, due to a prior commitment (giving a lecture for Continuing Studies).  Things moved into high gear with the first performance of the Madison Opera’s splendid production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (below, in a photo by James Gill) on the evening of the 26th (and there was John Arnold in the cast), which I reviewed for Isthmus.

madison opera don giovanni james gill No. 10

Most of the 27th was taken up with this season’s final HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera, in this case a not-to-be-missed production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.”  The evening offered a pair of equal options, programs each presented that date or the next.

So, postponing the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra concert, I opted for the latest program organized by the energetic and versatile Jerry Hui with his Eliza’s Toyes ensemble (below), at the Gates of Heaven. His menu offered a range of Northern Italian madrigals mostly from the early 17th century, plus some dance pieces of the period.

These were interspersed with episodes from a slender playlet, delivered by the singers in Commedia dell’Arte improvisational style, about the dangers of gambling.  All that was pegged to the date 1638, when the first authorized casino (the Ridotto) was opened in Venice.  The idea of mixing music with theater is typical of Jerry Hui’s imaginative experimentation, but it must be said that the performers’ acting skills were at a much lower level than their musical ones.

Fortunately, the latter maintained the group’s splendid balance and discipline, and in music of genuine interest.  A lovely item by Monteverdi was familiar, but secular madrigals by Giovanni Gabrieli are not, and the other composers represented are little known today. The selections, in fact, included real gems, ones sadly neglected in our time by performers and recordings.  This program was, on that count, a true ear-opener.

Eliza's Toyes 2012 1

On to Sunday, the 28th.  Now it happens this year that this date inaugurates the Orthodox Christian Holy Week (as distinct from the Western Christian dating), and the Palm Sunday service is one of the most exhausting one of the liturgical year. I sing in the choir of the local Greek church here, and so I began the day with an initial burden of fatigue.  (That was a function not of Madison’s musical schedule, of course, but we all have various personal commitments, musical or otherwise, I think.)  In the early afternoon, I attended a program on American Players Theatre involving a dear faculty friend and colleague. Yes, a non-musical commitment, but again at a sacrifice, of attending a memorial program for another colleague, recently deceased.

Pant, pant!

And now it came to finale, the performance by the UW Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra (below) at Mills Hall that evening.  A fine finale it proved to be. It was devoted to a major choral work by the American composer Robert Kyr. His “Passion According to Four Evangelists” is a fascinating 20th-century contribution to a rather limited literature, aimed at modernizing the Baroque tradition of setting the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death.  Beverly Taylor, the Choral Union conductor, was instrumental in arranging the work’s commissioning back in her Boston days, and she has already brought it to Madison once before, so it is something she clearly knows and loves.

UW Choral Union and soloists w Taylor : KYR

Kyr created his own composite text, drawing not only on all four Gospel accounts (instead of using just one, as in past practice), but on other Scriptural texts (especially Psalms) and on literature beyond.  The four soloists represent not only the four Evangelists, but also characters in the action –UW tenor James Doing (below) was predictably outstanding as Luke and Jesus. 

Some of the solo writing is vocally awkward, and some imbalances from the orchestra need to be adjusted.  But Kyr is one of the few composers today who can write viable and idiomatic choral music.  He has made a point of having the chorus and the soloists interact musically to dramatic effect.  The Choral Union is big enough, but also well drilled enough to bring off splendidly Kyr’s moments of beauty, power and eloquence.  I would be cautious about calling this a great masterpiece, but it is certainly an important landmark in American and contemporary choral music.

Choral Union Kyr James Doing

Kyr himself (below) was on hand to give a pre-concert talk, which was genial and engaging, explaining his rationale in conceiving and constructing the work, at once in musical, spiritual, and humanistic terms.

robert kyr

That was a fine climax to an exhausting day.  And, for all my own individual hyperactive diversions, I wonder if other Madison music lovers might find parallels with my experience.

I am the first to praise the wonderful richness and variety of Madison’s musical life.  But is there a time — especially in these insanely over-scheduled Aprils — when abundance becomes overkill?

It is fabulous to have so many choices.  But when the choices become increasingly painful amid schedule conflicts, has the abundance become almost counter-productive?  Wonderful events have to sacrificed in favor of other wonderful events, all competing for the same audience.

I know it sounds ungrateful to want, sometimes, just a little pulling back from the over-scheduling.  And nobody would want to appoint some culture czar to blow whistles and regulate what can or cannot be scheduled, when and where.

Local organizations do, indeed, try to consult with each other, and make what adjustments or accommodations can be managed.  But each organization has its own compulsions, of individual schedules, and above all of access to facilities for which there is much competition.  Moreover, the academic year has an inevitable way of squeezing things further and further to its end.

I do not have any magic solution.  It does seem to me that “town” organizations might assume a certain deference to “gown” ones, in allowing some space to UW events and activities.  Some of the latter, too — ones less dependent on semester wind-up — could be spread out better.  Some non-UW events might be work towards earlier dates.

Well, that’s so much fantasy dreaming, up against harsh realities.  Yet among directors, performers and attendees, there ought to be a little thinking about how much overloading of the Madison musical audience is beneficial – or detrimental — to our cultural community.  Too much is simply unfair to both the audiences who want to attend concerts and to the musicians who work so hard to put them on and to attract audiences.

We should try to preserve the abundance, but be more careful about its equitable scheduling.

And, oh yes, I have a musical committee meeting Monday evening.  And then this weekend, two commitments (including the Ancora String Quartet, below top) prevent me from hearing performances with retiring UW violinist Tyrone Greive (below bottom, in a photo by Kathy Esposito)  with the UW Symphony Orchestra . . . to say nothing of this Saturday night when the Wisconsin Youth Orchestra’s (WYSO) “Art of Note” fundraising gala takes place as do concerts by the Ancora String Quartet and the Oakwood Chamber Players.

And so it goes, on and on and on …

Ancora FUS BIG John Devereux

Tyrone Greive 2013 by Kathy Esposito

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