NEW! High Quality Singing at Major RNCM Vocal Competition

11/02/2016

High Quality Singing at Major RNCM Vocal Competition

Competition Final of the 31st Annual Frederic Cox Award for Singing,Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 2.2.2016. (RJF)

First awarded in 1986, this competition is one of the major awards open to trainee singers at the RNCM. Winning it is a major addition to any student’s CV. The list of past winners includes names that have gone on to considerable careers in opera and includes such as Simon Keenlyside, the first awardee, Amanda Roocroft, Sara Fulgoni, Linda Richardson, Jane Irwin, Roland Wood, Kathryn Rudge and Bryony Williams …to name a few. The award is named after Frederic Cox, not merely a former principal of the college, but the man without whose vision the RNCM might not have come into existence. Although those singers named above have made careers in opera, the competition aims to give credit to those with vocal skills that might take them into careers in the oratorio or recital field. The structure of the competition serves all possible outcomes and strengths and is accompanied with a cheque for £1,000 to help fund a further year’s study at the College for the winner.

Frederic Cox had a personal passion for singing, whilst in his teaching he recognised the physical demands of the act and its relationship with personal build. A former head boy at a public school and exhibitioner at Oriel College, Oxford he was also an all round sportsman. As a singer he gave his first Wigmore Hall recital on September 3rd 1939, a notable day in the history of Europe. Cox also had aspirations and achievements as a composer. After his work in World War Two, particularly in Belgium, he was awarded the Order of Leopold II, and his own country awarded him an OBE. The war also provided opportunity for visits to La Scala, doubtless an influence on his love and knowledge of opera.

After the war Cox resumed his vocal studies with the renowned tenor Joseph Hislop and in 1949 he came to Manchester as professor of singing at the then Royal Manchester College of Music and was appointed joint principal in May 1953. With the knack of recruiting good teachers he was a great success as principal, his sense of humour leavening his professional demands on his staff and the college students. Under his guidance the college produced a string of great graduates in both the singing and instrumental areas.

The opera performances put on by the College during Cox’s period as Principal drew wide respect as well as audience numbers and appreciation. Many participants later becoming stalwarts on the British and international stage.  Performances included rarely heard operas as well as the more common run and varied between the bel canto I Capuletti e i Montecchi, L’Italiana in Algeri, La Sonnambula and Norma to Wagnerian epics such as Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Die Meistersinger.  I was privileged to see many of those productions and enjoyed noting, and later watching out for, the soloists involved.

Significantly, Cox’s vision did not just rest with the development of singers and seeing them onto great careers, he also sought and oversaw the creation of the RNCM by the amalgamation with the Northern School of Music. He resigned his position in November 1969 after the commencement of the new building becoming head of the vocal department of Trinity College of Music, London as well as, in the last decade of his life, teaching at the new RNCM. In his memoir to the 1994 competition, the late Michael Kennedy concluded that Freddie’s teaching helped singers develop the vocal expressiveness of the Italian vocal style at its most highly developed, a style which he taught incomparably.

The award that carries Frederic Cox’s name is open to fourth year undergraduate students and postgraduates. The candidates are required to perform a programme of approximately twenty minutes duration to include the following categories;

  1. A 19th century operatic aria of the romantic period in the original language.
  2. Lied or Lieder of not less than three minutes, and not more than five, by any of the following composers,; Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Mahler.
  3. Baroque or classical recitative and aria.
  4. 20th century operatic aria in any language.
  5. A song sung in English.

The ideal programme to include Italian, French and German languages in addition to the English song requirement.

After preliminary rounds within the college the winner is decided by a panel of three well-known professional singers, often alumni of the RNCM. On this 2016 occasion they were Lynn Dawson (chair), Deborah Rees and Richard Berkeley-Steele.The piano accompanists were Roderick Barrand, Jonathan Fisher, Robin Humphreys.

The first of the six finalists was Kimberley Raw (soprano), a postgraduate with a First Class B. Mus. degree from RNCM. She has sung roles in College productions of Paradise Moscow, L’elisir d’amore, and Street Scene. Exhibiting a powerful lyric soprano voice Kimberley started with E Pur così in un giorno from Handel’s Giulio Cesare articulating the coloratura divisions well and then showing more vocal colour in Strauss’ Die Zeitlose. Perhaps her most successful contribution was her singing of Musetta’s Waltz Song from Puccini’s La bohème which preceded a short declamatory My Heart Still Hovering about me by Jonathan Dove. She concluded with a climactic finish to Kurt Weill’s  I Could Never believe.

Next was Neil Balfour (bass-baritone) whose repertoire extends to musical theatre and contemporary genres. He has featured on stage in many operas as well as live BBC broadcasts and is currently on the Opera North mentor scheme as is a Buxton Festival young artist. With an appealing stage presence Neil might have confused Frederic Cox, being of only average height; voices of his type are general much taller. With vocal sonority, but sometimes with a touch of nasality over covering his tone. His Purcell was full toned and flexible whilst his Vi ravviso from Bellini’s La Sonnambula had a genuine touch of bel canto about it despite a need for more sonority. His expressive use of his hands was seen to good effect in his Lieder song with plenty of vocal brio whilst he handled the declamatory opening to Stravinsky’s Respondit Deus particularly well. A stage creature!

The third, Alexandra Lowe (soprano) is currently studying for an M.Mus degree after graduating with a First Class B.Mus. Degree. Alexandra has been awarded several prizes for song. Most recently she appeared as Rose Maurant in Street Scene. Alexandra opened with an aria from Mozart’s opera Il re pastore, which I found a little thin in vocal colour and tonal variety. These faults, and a need for better diction were also evident in her Strauss Ständchen. Her singing of Massenet’s aria from Manon, in good French, was better but, in my view, she needs to seek to develop a warmer middle voice.

Charlotte Trepass (soprano) is in her second postgraduate year. Charlotte has had experience on the operatic stage with Opera North as well in the RNCM’s The Merry Widow. She is performing the role of Despina in the College’s forthcoming production of Così fan tutte. She opened her programme with the allegro from Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate which quickly showed her warm soprano as being allied to a rich timbre of colours and good diction. She added poignant expression in her Lorsque vous n’aurez rien a faire from Massenet’s Chérubin. More riches were to follow in her rendition of Betteridge’s Waiting for Friends and in her Lieder when use of her hands and general demeanour were pluses. Her singing of Vorrei spiegavi from Rossini’s fist staged opera, the Farsa La cambiale di matrimonio (November 3rd 1810), was an histrionic tour de force.

The penultimate finalist, Lara Harvey (mezzo-soprano), is currently studying for a Masters degree. She has extensive experience as an oratorio soloist as well as in the College’s opera scenes and the production of The Merry Widow. She is also scheduled to appear as a soloist at the prestigious Mountbatten Festival of Music at the Royal Albert Hall. Lara’s creamy expressive tone, aided by her tall slender figure, made an immediate impression. She added to these advantages expressive use of her hands. I was less impressed by her choice of repertoire and ended up disappointed by her contribution. Neither Debussy’s Voici ce qu’il écrit from Pelléas et Mélisande nor Olga’s aria from Eugene Onegin seemed to allow her to exhibit her strengths. I longed for her to launch into something like Dalila’s Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix.

Finally we heard Stuart Orme (baritone) currently studying for an M.Mus degre who appeared as Barabashkin in the College’s production of Paradise Moscow. He has gained solo experience with several smaller opera companies and chorus in the chorus at Opera Holland Park. Stuart’s rich and varied baritone voice came over well in his Mozart before passing quickly to Wagner’s O! du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser. It is not often an audience gets to hear Wagner, or even Verdi at singing competitions. This is because of the demand for a large sized voice. None the less, with piano accompaniment his efforts came over adequately and with moving sincerity albeit Puccini or Gounod might have served him better. His parlando efforts and comic acting were appreciated in Barber’s You rascal you whilst his Strauss lied left me cold.

At the end Richard Berkeley-Steele summarised the evening, noting that the singers we had heard were at different stages of vocal development. He announced the winner as Charlotte Trepass who received the congratulations of the other competitors and the audience as she received her doubtless welcome cheque towards her future studies at the RNCM.

This was a most rewarding evening for lovers of singing. As one who has attended such events at the RNCM over many years, my only disappointment was the lack of members of the public in appreciable numbers in the audience, which would have been sparse without the presence of many fellow students. Publicity, and particularly, a programme leaflet that gave all the details of what was being sung, not merely the title of the aria without reference to the opera from which it came, and which was absent in several instances.

Robert J Farr

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