Robert Farr reports on the 26th Annual Singing Competition Final – Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Award for Singers

The 26th Annual Singing Competition Final – Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Award for Singers at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester on 28th February 2017

The competitors and their programmes:

Neil Balfour (bass-baritone)

Jacques Ibert, ‘Chanson de la Mort’
Mozart, ‘La vendetta’
Britten, ‘Raleigh’s Song’
Kathryn Davidson, ‘The Pit Boys’
William Bolcom, ‘Black Max’

Samantha Clarke (soprano)

Mozart, ‘Temerari … Come scoglio’
Richard Strauss, ‘Das Rosenband’
Bellini, ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta … O quante volte’
Roger Quilter, ‘Love’s Philosophy’

James Berry (bass-baritone)

Mozart, ‘Hai gia vinta la causa … Vedro mentr’io sospiro’
Gerald Finzi, ‘It was a lover and his lass’
Bellini, ‘Or dove fuggo io mai … Ah, Per sempre’
Schubert, ‘Rastlose Liebe’
Guy d’Hardelot, ‘Because’

Alexandra Lowe (soprano)

Mozart, ‘Temerari … Come scoglio’
Debussy, ‘C’est l’extase’
Britten, ‘How beautiful it is’
Hubert Parry, ‘The Maiden’
Gilbert and Sullivan, ‘Tis done I am a bride’

David McCaffrey (baritone)

George Butterworth, 3 songs from A Shropshire Lad: ‘Loveliest of Trees’, ‘Think no more lad’, and ‘Is my team ploughing’
Mozart, ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’
Korngold, ‘Die Tote Stadt Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’
Tosti, ‘L’ultima canzone’

Charlotte Trepess (soprano)

Mozart, ‘Nel Grave Tormento’
Schumann, ‘Lied Der Suleika’
Dominick Argento, ‘Diaphenia’
Berlioz, ‘Je vais le voir’

Elizabeth Harwood: Elizabeth was arguably the most important British soprano to sing on the international circuit at all the best addresses since Eva Turner, a much heavier voice, in the 1930s. Born in 1938 she commenced her studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1956, graduating in 1960. She won the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship, using the money to spend a year in Milan and studying with the renowned Lina Pagliughi. She worked in the old Sadler’s Wells for five years learning her repertory before launching her international career. Her performances and singing at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1967 came to the attention of Von Karajan who invited her to the Salzburg Festival in 1969. The success led to her debut at La Scala in 1972 and the Metropolitan Opera three years later.

Elizabeth Harwood was a singer of many skills. She sang in oratorio as well as giving recitals. She made records, one of the most renowned was as Musetta in La bohème alongside Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti and with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karajan. It remains a benchmark to this day (Decca 421 049-2). She died in 1990 at the young age of 52.

The Elizabeth Harwood Award: In accordance with her will, The Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Trust was established to administer an annual award at her old college, now the RNCM. The award is intended to enable final year students at the RNCM to continue their studies after leaving College. The award holder must make all the arrangements in connection with the proposed course of study, which must meet with the approval of the Trustees, who expect it to be used by the recipient to widen the scope of their professional training. Applicants are required to state what course of study they would wish to follow should they win the award.

The competition: The award is judged at the RNCM in two parts, an eliminating round adjudicated by members of staff at the School of Vocal and Opera Studies and a final round that requires one item from a singer’s recital to be by Mozart.

The adjudicators: The competition is adjudicated by the Head of Vocal Studies at the RNCM, an eminent singer, and the Administrator of the Trust. On this evening, this was chaired by Professor Lynne Dawson, internationally, herself internationally renowned soprano and early music specialist. Donald Maxwell, internationally renowned baritone and former Director of the National Opera Studio. Isobel Finn an acclaimed accompanist and vocal coach and administrator of the Elizabeth Harwood Trust.

The piano accompanists: Roderick Barrand, Robin Humphreys, Jonathan Fisher, and David Jones

The competition final: The six finalists were three sopranos, one baritone and two bass baritones

Neil Balfour opened the proceedings. He featured in the 2016 final of the Frederic Cox Award at the RNCM. He is of Anglo Indian origin and of average height. As I noted last year Neil’s repertoire extends to musical theatre and contemporary genres and has featured on stage in many operas as well as live BBC broadcasts. He started somewhat tentatively vocally, but steadied in his singing of Bartolo’s vengeance aria from the Marriage of Figaro, sung in Italian of course. As yet, I feel, his voice needs more lower sonority and vocal bite for that kind of role. In ‘Raleigh’s Song’ from Gloriana he was more settled presenting the words well accompanied by vocal expression and good body language. Vocal poignancy was well in evidence in his singing of ‘The Pit Boys’ and concluding with excellent vocal nuance and diction in William Bolcom’s ‘Black Max’.

The tall elegant Alexandra Lowe followed to sing a well phrased and rich toned ‘Come scoglio’, that very demanding aria from Act I of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, adding welcome facial and body language to her vocal expression. Her ‘Das Rosenband’ was sung with elegiac tonal expression and contrasted nicely with her start to Bellini’s flowing bel canto line in ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta’ from I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Her tone was both rich and strong albeit her trill will develop further. Her Quilter was a little harsh at the top of her voice.

A second bass baritone, James Berry, concluded the first half of the competition. His opening ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’, Count Almaviva’s aria from Act III of the Marriage of Figaro where he at first thinks he is on a winner and before doubts set in, lacked vehemence in both voice and body language as well as poor use of his hands. He showed more vitality in Gerald Finzi’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’ whilst he lacked sufficient bass sonority for the rolling lines of the Bellini aria. His best effort was Guy d’Hardelot’s ‘Because’. He needs more confidence in respect of stage presence and the use of body language.

Alexandra Lowe opened the second part of the competition with our second hearing of ‘Come scoglio’. She really put bite into the recitative and with hands and body language aiding her sung interpretation she was only let down with some thin, even shrill notes at the top of her voice. Alexandra put plenty of feeling and animus into her Debussy, but showed some need of middle voice warmth and better diction in ‘How beautiful it is’ from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. She showed some further thinness of tone in Hubert Parry’s ‘The Maiden’ and greater variety of colour in her concluding Gilbert and Sullivan.

David McCaffrey, a true baritone, was the penultimate contestant. His choice of repertoire was ideal for his soft toned expressive baritone. Opening with George Butterworth songs his good diction and feeling for the words were immediately apparent. He sang Don Giovanni’s serenade from the eponymous opera as the seducer sought out another notch on his bedpost with elegant phrasing if want of a little more vocal richness, or am I hearing too many lower voices in this role? His soft ending to Korngold was a delight, but his singing of Tosti’s ‘L’ultima canzone’ was outstanding. His vocal caressing of the melody and appealing tone, along with his acted contributions made a deserved impact on the audience.

Charlotte Trepess, the final contestant opened her programme with the little-known aria ‘Nel Grave Tormento’ from Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponte and what a showstopper it was in her sung interpretation. The Winner of the 2016 Frederic Cox Award, the benefits of a third post grad year were evident in her declamation, plenty of vocal animus and vitality along with her expressive use of hands to go along with her sung expressiveness. These same qualities were in evidence in the different climate of Schumann’s ‘Lied Der Suleika ‘and then at faster tempo in ‘Diaphenia’. She concluded her impressive contribution indicating, by movement around and body language, how she would dominate a stage or concert platform as she sang ‘Je vais le voir’ from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict in excellent comprehensible French.

The adjudicators retired, for what seemed longer than usual on these occasions, before returning to announce that there were three winners!  Last year it was two men who shared the prize money and this year it went equally between two ladies, Alexandra Lowe and Charlotte Trepess, along with the baritone David McCaffrey.

Informative speeches from Donald Maxwell and Julian Royle, Elizabeth Harwood’s husband, put in perspective the challenges, as well as the opportunities, to all concerned and now in front of them as professional singers in a highly competitive profession.

Robert J Farr

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