When Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, Andrew Wailes, referred to the seven finalists of the 17th RMP Aria as “soloists”, he summarised an event that was a celebration of vocal music rather than a fight for vocal supremacy. The atmosphere was decidedly positive as all singers strived to do justice to some of the most sublime music to be found within a vast treasury of oratorio music spanning more than 500 years. As Wailes indicated in his opening remarks, singers could choose from this massive range of predominantly sacred vocal music the very best repertoire for their voices.
A list of finalists often brings surprises. Who would have thought that in 2023 we would have had three tenors, three mezzo-sopranos and only one soprano – plus a baritone Reserve Finalist? The chosen repertoire was much as expected with nine pieces by Bach, eight by Handel, two each by Pergolesi and Mendelssohn, and one each by Vivaldi, Stainer and Mahler. Most of these were conservative works based on sacred texts. “Urlicht” (Primordial Light), from Mahler’s Symphony No.2, however, was far from being mainstream. While the text – by an anonymous author – is certainly sacred in sentiment, the choice of an excerpt from a symphony is unusual, and demonstrates how broad the concept of oratorio can be.
In this case, Mahler’s ravishing piece enabled Ukranian Australian mezzo-soprano, Alla Yarosh, to display her truly spectacular voice and expressive musicality. Although she sings as a mezzo-soprano, her dark tone marks her as more of a contralto. Perhaps it is the lush amplitude of her upper notes that suggest the higher category. Given the unusual and compelling nature of her voice, it is likely that many members of the audience would have supported her for the People’s Choice Award. It was difficult to believe that she is only 22 years old; a singer of huge promise, she was awarded Runner Up.
It is little wonder that Andrew Wailes admitted to dreading the moment when the prize-winners have to be announced. The adjudicators (Andrew Bainbridge, Andrew Raiskums and Andrew Wailes) found the standard of singing to be very high and saw very few technical issues that had to be taken into account. Audiences and adjudicators do not always agree, but this year they did, with Sydney soprano Chloe Lankshear being both Winner and recipient of the People’s Choice Award. Melbourne audiences are familiar with her performances as a featured singer with both Pinchgut Opera and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Her performance of “Rejoice” from Handel’s Messiah was dazzling; her vocal agility, accuracy, range, breath control – no shortcuts for Chloe Lankshear – and ornamentation were extraordinarily impressive. At the end, murmurs of appreciation and even gentle laughter could be heard as listeners sat amazed at her daring coloratura. But it wasn’t all vocal pyrotechnics; following a well-sustained “Wir beten zu den Tempel” from Bach’s Cantata 51, her interpretation of “Tu del ciel ministra eletto” from Handel’s very first oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion) was something to remember. Serene and glowing, her melting tone and fabulously long legato line made this slow, affecting aria the perfect way to end that section of the evening.
Lankshear certainly knows how to create atmosphere and hold the moment, but there was one troubling aspect to her presentation: her iPad. It is customary for oratorio singers to hold a score, although most actually look at it only briefly. When musicians have their tablets on a stand it doesn’t present a problem, but when it is held and reflected light starts to dance around like a spotlight on the back wall every time a singer moves, it can become very distracting. Fortunately, all the other singers carried printed scores.
Jack Jordan was awarded Third Prize for his performance of excerpts from Handel’s Jeptha. All sung in English, it was one of the least varied programs, but his tenor voice has great allure and he gave a confident, emotionally persuasive interpretation of two recitatives and arias. Although the acoustic blinds had been lowered, he was also able to find a way to exploit the hall’s resonance to great effect, his vocal production seemingly effortless and smooth.
The Adjudicators’ Encouragement Award went to Brisbane mezzo-soprano Talia Garrett-Benson, who sang a recitative and two arias from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The profoundly moving “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy on me, my God) was sung expressively and with an appealingly warm, rounded tone, somewhat reminiscent of the young Stacey Alleaume’s vocal quality. The musicality of Garrett-Benson’s performance was complemented by Stefan Cassomenos’ sensitive accompaniment. Instead of those exquisite passages for solo violin, we had a pianist who could conjure up the spirit of Bach’s masterful writing with almost uncanny musical insight. His ability to convey the essence of orchestral colour and sentiment from these piano reductions was exceptionally accomplished, as well as being of enormous help to all singers – the prize-winners and Thomas Buckmaster, Hannah Kostros and Benjamin Glover.
As the adjudicators deliberated, the RMP Choir and Orchestra performed Handel’s Dixit Dominus. For previous iterations of the Finalists Concert held in Federation Square’s Edge venue, choir members sat on the built-in tiers at the back of the stage while the finalists performed. Despite the move to the Melbourne Recital Centre and the superb acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, where it appeared to be impractical, they still appeared inspired to give of their best.
Composed in 1707, the same year Handel wrote Chloe Lankshear’s final aria, his Dixit Dominus was an ideal way to conclude the vocal part of the concert. Not only is it a thrilling work to sing and hear, it is also a striking demonstration of his musical genius. Aged 22, he was out to display his mastery of a range of compositional techniques and dramatic effects.
A chamber ensemble that included several of Melbourne’s most respected musicians and five outstanding soloists joined members of the RMP Choir for an exhilarating performance. When they were not coming forward for solos, duets and ensembles, sopranos Mia Robinson and Astrid Girdis, alto Michael Burden, tenor Timothy Reynolds and bass baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos joined the choir behind the orchestra to sing all the chorus numbers. It would have been hard to resist doing so. No doubt they added both volume and lustre to the overall effect, which was energetic, precise and nicely shaped throughout. There was a lovely sheen to the soprano sound and the tenors and basses sang strongly – perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times, which tended to coarsen the tone a little. There was commendable clarity between the parts of the busy fugato of the “Judicabit in nationibus” with clear articulation and plenty of drama for the “ruinas” and percussive “conquassabit capita” (shatter the skulls) section.
Of the soloists, special mention should be made of the two sopranos, who sang with beautiful steady tone, and were so well matched that it was occasionally difficult to tell exactly who was singing at times in the penultimate number, “De Torrente”. The way the two voices intertwined, with Robinson taking the exacting upper line and the choir interweaving their own threads, was immensely satisfying.
Clean articulation and distinctive layering of parts between the two choirs was a feature of the final “Gloria”, with antiphonal effects adding to the excitement. The final “Amen” was immediately greeted with a heart-felt “Bravissimo” from one member of the audience, and several stood to cheer and applaud. “That was fun!” said Andrew Wailes as he introduced the serious business of announcing the prize-winners.
Yes, it was fun, and the evening as a whole was a great deal more than that. It left listeners keen to find out what this unique celebration of oratorio has in store for next year. It is an event not to be missed.
Photo credit Paul Dodd.
Heather Leviston reviewed The 17th RMP Aria – The Finalists Concert 2023, presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic at the Melbourne Recital Centre on August 12, 2023.