The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Soprano and past winner Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition

October 22, 2018
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about a well-established and international annual event that takes place in Madison:

“We are delighted to announce that soprano Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition.

“Sarah was one of our first finalists, in the second year of the event, and she won first prize the following year. Her wonderful performances of “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Ferma l’ali” from La resurrezione from the 2015 Handel Aria Competition can be seen on our YouTube channel.

“Sarah recently returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study for her DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) with voice professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

“She continues to maintain a busy international touring schedule, and in addition has already co-founded a monthly Madison midday concert series entitled Just Bach. Please take a moment to read her fascinating and impressive bio.

“As we welcome Sarah to her new position, we want to express our boundless gratitude to Cheryl Bensman-Rowe. Cheryl, the co-director of the Madison Early Music Festival,  was the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition from the very start, and we would never have been able to launch this event without her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and organizational skills.

“The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will take place on Friday, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.”


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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