The best kinds of competition are the ones that feel like celebrations, and the 16th iteration of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Aria was just that. It was not only because the pandemic had cancelled the 2020 edition and put last year’s online, rather, it is the format that elevates the experience by reminding us of the wider context for all those recitatives and arias.
In addition to his conducting and adjudication duties for the evening, RMP’s Chief Conductor, Andrew Wailes, acted as a lively and articulate compere, providing just enough information to enhance the experience. He is, rightly, proud of the longevity of the RMP and the significant role it continues to play in the cultivation of Melbourne’s musical life. Established in 1853, it is thought to be Australia’s oldest surviving cultural organisation, and the RMP Aria is now Australia’s foremost competition for oratorio soloists.
On Sunday evening, seven young soloists: Ben Glover, Alexandra Mathew, Shania Eliassen, James Emerson, Jack Stephens, Karina Bailey and Zachary McCulloch, vied for the prizes, following which, singers from the RMP Choir, Melbourne University Choir and Box Hill Chorale, along with a chamber ensemble of soloists from the RMP Orchestra, performed John Rutter’s Requiem. As a venue, Deakin Edge provides an opportunity for the choristers’ closer involvement, as they are able to sit on the tiers in the background – rather like a cheer squad for the contestants. It seemed informal and friendly.
Each soloist was required to sing at least one recitative and contrasting arias from two oratorios. Although repertoire was largely predictable – the first three singers chose pieces from the Aria’s three most performed composers: Handel, Mendelssohn and Bach, there were some less well-known inclusions. Following her Bach choices, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Mathew sang “The Soul of Man” from Michael Tippett’s superb A Child of Our Time, regrettably, a work that is rarely performed in Australia nowadays, and one that Andrew Wailes was keen to champion. Hopefully, he might be the one to ensure it is performed in the near future.
Alexandra was awarded the Runner Up prize by the adjudicators, who looked for strengths in vocal technique (such as clarity in florid passages, and beauty and evenness of tone), musicality, interpretation skills and the ability to communicate with an audience. The 2022 Winner, Karina Bailey, also chose less mainstream repertoire in Carl Orff’s “In trutina” from Carmina Burana. Her sweet, clear voice was well suited to the Orff and to the “Alleluja” from Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate in which her lively personality, vocal agility and convincing top C also attracted the People’s Choice Award. The Conductor’s Encouragement Award went to tenor Ben Glover, who opened the evening with a controlled performance of the recitative “Comfort ye” and aria “Every valley” from Handel’s Messiah.
Although “The Rules” disallow any instruments other than piano accompaniment – for this Aria provided by an outstandingly supportive Peter de Jager – an exception was made for the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” from Bach’s Mass in B minor. Wailes explained that the horn obbligato was essential to making sense of the music so bass, Jack Stephens, was joined by Eve McEwan, giving the audience an extra treat. Other less usual offerings came from Zachary McCulloch, who concluded the competition on a strong note with a ringing, full-bodied account of the aria “Ingemisco” from Donizetti’s Messa di Requiem, following an aria from Saint-Saens’ Oratorio de Noël.
After a pause as the audience cast their votes and the adjudicators, Sally-Anne Russell, Christopher Watson and Andrew Wailes (Chair), decided on the winners, the choir performed John Rutter’s Requiem. A last minute change resulted in RMP choir member Justine Schaefer being handed the role of soprano soloist with little preparation. And she was terrific. She has a small but pure voice, not unlike the treble-sounding soprano Rutter himself chose for recording his Requiem. Audience members were obviously delighted with the unaffected, steady way she sang the “Pie Jesu” accompanied by cello, oboe, flute and (a slightly too loud at times) organ. Some beautiful playing also came in featured moments from cellist Ye Chin Choi and oboist Jasper Ly. From the hushed opening “Requiem”, with its harp and heartbeat timpani accompaniment, to the climactic grandeur of parts of the “Agnus Dei” the combined choirs were impressive in their dynamic range and precision. The sopranos sang with shining tone throughout the work and all choir members obviously enjoyed singing this melodious moving work.
In order to finish on a more upbeat note, this Oratorio Festival Choir sang “Jubilate” from Dan Forrest’s Song of the Earth. It was an appropriate way to end the musical part of the celebrations and could only be surpassed by the enormous feast spread out behind the auditorium seats, where everybody could mingle and enjoy food, drink and the memory of another uplifting RMP Aria.
Photo credit: Paul Dodd
Heather Leviston reviewed the 2022 RMP Aria and Rutter’s Requiem presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic at Deakin Edge on August 14, 2022.