Six Singers Garner Top Awards at George London Foundation Competition

18/02/2018

Various composers – George London Foundation Awards Competition Finals: Various singers, Craig Rutenberg (piano), The Morgan Museum & Library, New York, 16.2.2018. (RP)

George London Award Winners 2018 with Nora London © Mark Von Holden

They were all winners, as well they should be; some just won a bit more. Culled from over 150 applicants, 72 singers were heard over three days of auditions and ultimately 17 vied for the six top prizes in the final round of the 47th annual George London Foundation Awards Competition. A total of $83,000 was awarded: six singers were selected as winners of George London Awards of $10,000, three received $5000 prizes and the remaining eight finalists were presented with $1000 awards.

One of the most compelling singers of the mid-twentieth century, bass-baritone George London’s career was cut short by illness. He went on to have an equally important one in arts administration, leading the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Opera Institute and the Washington Opera before succumbing to a heart ailment. Founded in 1971, the award program’s mission is to assist young American and Canadian opera singers during the early years of their careers. It became a foundation in 1990, with the singer’s widow, Nora London, serving as its president.

This year’s panel of judges was comprised of soprano Harolyn Blackwell, mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, the Foundation’s Artistic Director John Hauser, Ms. London, tenor George Shirley and baritone Richard Stilwell (who won a George London Award at the first competition in 1971). The competition pianist was Craig Rutenberg. The judges zeroed in on the same singers that I did, not that I would want to be in their shoes.

Soprano Lauren Margison sparkled in ‘The Jewel Song’ from Gounod’s Faust, floating gorgeous high notes and spinning softly caressed trills that made you believe she was indeed the luckiest girl on earth. A key ingredient of Margison’s appeal is her unaffected naturalness.

Competition was fiercest among the six mezzo-sopranos who made it to the finals, with three ultimately awarded top prizes. Raehann Bryce-Davis dominates the stage with her voice and commanding presence. Her singing of ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ from Gounod’s Sapho was marked by long, sculpted phrases, resounding low notes and powerful high ones. Bryce-Davis is a singer who makes a statement.

Drama was also the calling card of Rihab Chaieb, who sang ‘Oui, Dieu le veut! …Adieu, forêts’ from Tchaikovsky’s Jeanne D’Arc. She has a sultry mezzo-soprano voice that sailed through the Russian composer’s emotion-laden aria and peaked thrillingly at its climax. Her dramatic instincts are a bit more subtle than those of Bryce-Davis, but just as potent.

The third opted for charm as her weapon of choice. Only 23, Emily D’Angelo was the youngest singer competing in the finals. Her ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was devilish in the details and exquisitely sung. The young mezzo, among the most polished of the singers who graced the stage, was bestowed an award specifically earmarked for a Canadian singer.

I was impressed by baritone Benjamin Taylor when I heard him last month in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of The Long Walk. (review) Then, as an Iraqi war veteran struggling to find his footing upon his return home to the USA, he had few melodies to sing. On this occasion, however, Taylor poured out his passions in a resonant flow of sound in Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

Bass-baritone Lawson Anderson did not follow the usual path to get to the winner’s circle. He earned an MBA from an Ivy League university and worked for a time at one of largest professional services and auditing firms in the world. Nature bestowed him with the looks of a Viking hero, and one can only hope that his voice transports future audiences to Valhalla. His confident singing of Wotan’s ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ from Das Rheingold marked him as a singer to watch. It was fitting that he was awarded the prize in honor of Kirsten Flagstad.

Three other singers appealed to me. Countertenor Daniel Moody was spellbinding in ‘Dawn still darkness’, the Refugee’s aria from Flight by Jonathan Dove. It took guts for Corrie Stallings to sing ‘Must the winter come so soon’, Erika’s aria from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a role that Rosalind Elias created at its 1958 Metropolitan Opera premiere. I found her singing of it to be hauntingly beautiful. Finally, lyric tenor Martin Bakari (who was also in the cast of Pittsburgh Opera’s The Long Walk) sang the only Mozart, a charming, silvery rendition of ‘Un’aura amoroso’ from Così fan tutte. The sweet-voiced, soft reprise of the melody was one of the loveliest sounds heard all afternoon.

Rick Perdian

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