United States George London Foundation Awards Competition Finals: Soloists, Susanna Phillips (host), Michael Fennelly (piano). The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 25.2.2022. (RP)
The 50th George London Foundation Competition returned live to The Morgan Library & Museum in New York. It was a hybrid event, however, with the singers performing before the judges in an all but empty auditorium. A handful of staff, technical support and six invited guests were the only other people in the hall. The finals, hosted by Susanna Phillips, were streamed live on the Foundation’s YouTube channel.
The Foundation was established in 1971 in honor of the great Canadian-American bass-baritone George London (1920-1985). Open to American and Canadian singers under the age of 35 who have performed in at least one professional opera engagement, past winners have included Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, Christine Goerke, Will Liverman and Matthew Polenzani. Judges for this year’s competition were Harolyn Blackwell, James Morris, Susan Quittmeyer and the Foundation’s Executive Director, John Hauser.
Nora E. London, President of the George London Foundation for Singers, who was married to the renowned singer from 1954 to 1985, was not in attendance. Now in her 90s, Mrs London, who is still a vital force within the organization, watched the finals from her home in Manhattan.
The 12 singers, chosen after three days of semi-final rounds, all gave exceptional performances. Undoubtedly the selection process for the five winners was rigorous, but the names might just as well have been pulled out of a hat. Any five of these exceptionally talented young singers could have been the one to win the top prizes of $10,000 each. The remaining seven singers were all awarded George London Encouragement Awards of $2,000.
In a field dominated by men (only three of the finalists were women), mezzo-soprano Megan Moore was the sole woman to be granted a top award. Scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in Brett Dean’s Hamlet in May, Moore sang a heart-rendering ‘Air des lettres’ from Massenet’s Werther. There is real power in her voice, especially in the solid, ringing upper range, but Moore was just as effective in expressing Charlotte’s more quiet emotions.
Tenor Eric Ferring made his Met debut earlier this season as Pong in Puccini’s Turandot. For the finals, he sang a poignant ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. There is silver in his sizeable, gleaming lyric tenor.
Three baritones – Blake Denson, Erik Grendahl and Timothy Murray – completed the list of winners. Grendahl, who is currently pursuing a Master of Music Degree at The Juilliard School, sang a beautifully nuanced ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. He has a classic sound that conveyed the aria’s bittersweet emotions perfectly.
Timothy Murray sings with a rare freedom of expression which, coupled with his commanding baritone, made for an especially compelling rendition of Onegin’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The last singer to perform was Blake Denson, who in just the few words he spoke gave an indication of the commanding resonance and size of his voice. He gave an impressive account of Rodrigo’s final aria, ‘Carlos, écoute’, from Verdi’s Don Carlo.
Other exceptional performances came from soprano Sophie Naubert who perfectly captured the quicksilver changes of mood in ‘Non, Monsieur mon mari’ from Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésius. Countertenor Cody Bowers displayed a voice of rare beauty in ‘Già l’ebro mio ciglio’ from Handel’s Orlando. And at the other end of the vocal spectrum was tenor Thomas Cilluffo singing a vivid account of Mime’s aria ‘Zwangvolle Plage!’, from Wagner’s Siegfried, complete with rhythmic effects.
Michael Fennelly was an exceptionally fine accompanist. At ease stylistically and technically in every musical challenge tossed his way, Fennelly was the most sensitive and sympathetic of collaborators.
The finals are available to view on demand on the George London Foundation’s YouTube channel (click here).