Soprano Jennifer Witton wins By Voice Alone Final 2019

A new competition challenging unconscious bias in the operatic audition process concluded last night at Kings Place in London.

424 singers applied for the crowdfunded competition, 256 of which were sopranos. Seven finalists featured, including one baritone, a mezzo-soprano, and five other sopranos from the UK and Europe. 

The competition was founded by Melanie Lodge who is the driving force behind online platform Audition Oracle that connects singers with classical music and opera companies, and the Singers’ Preparation Award, a funding mechanism giving singers access to ongoing development services. 

Soprano Jennifer Witton won the first prize of £2000. Members of the audience in Hall Two at Kings Place, London voted soprano Luci Briginshaw as the recipient of the £750 audience prize. 

All of the first round auditions were conducted with a screen separating judges and artists, meaning decisions were made solely on the character portrayed by the voice. A short film played during the interval illustrated the obvious benefits to the performer: that in a moment when they needed to give of their best to prove their worth they were able to focus on performance without the additional stresses and strains of preparing themselves for an artificially ‘formal’ set up.

Luci Briginshaw went further, illustrating how the presence of the screen meant that performers also weren’t subject to the inevitable destructive self-scrutiny of assumptions and perceptions. This was performing in its purest form. 

Unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat

Come the final – an unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat affair – there is then a stronger sense of self-assurance for the performer knowing as they do that their selection has been based on their instrument and the way they use it. 

And in the intimate studio-like of Kings Place’s Hall Two, the proximity between audience and performer intensified the immediacy, making it easier to create connections. Jeannette Louise van Schaik did this well with a sophisticated performance during which she maintained a captivating stillness; her articulation and enunciation was delightful unfussy yet precise. Emerging Artist prizewinner Chloe Morgan capitalised on the intimacy of the space with a captivating sweet charm in Charpentier’s Depuis du jour.First prize winner Jennifer Witton concluded the evening with the complete package – a compelling characters from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and Massenet’s Cendrillon. There was warmth and strength in performances which conveyed a sense of solidity and power throughout. 

Confronting my own unconscious bias

I was particularly surprised by the impact of baritone Themba Mvula.

When you know that the singer on stage has secured his place as a result of a blind audition round, then there’s a temptation to adopt the same approach during a live performance yourself. When I did that I became aware of the assumptions I had about what a baritone should look like – my own unconscious bias and a reflection of the warm, rich and enveloping sound of a baritone voice. 

That Themba – slim, unassuming, and decidedly unfussy – didn’t match my assumption demonstrated why the competition is important and helped explain why the event appealed to me. 

By Voice Alone isn’t just about consolidating a commitment to industry-wide diversity of opportunity in the operatic and classical music world, it’s also drawing the audience closer to the fundamentals of the artform: the music and its production. And the By Voice Alone final demonstrated that with a pleasingly entertaining and authentic event. 

Opera: By Voice Alone seeks financial support for its ongoing development. To pledge support, visit the competition crowdfunding page.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast Ep 40 – Cellist, composer and conductor Joy Lisney

Podcast 40 features an interview with cellist Joy Lisney who appears at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre, on 8th June in a recital of Bach, Chopin and Brahms with her piano playing father James Lisney.

Joy is no sloucher, it strikes me. She composes. She conducts. She cycles. A lot.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me in the way that it did initially. Because there’s a down-to-earthness about that range of activites which I find quite refreshing. Whilst I have no intention or remaining time available to squeeze in an early morning run (well, its probably down to motivation more than anything else), I like the way that activities which are seemingly at odds with our perception of an individual’s work or identity, actually compliment a musicians life – pointing to something far more holistic.

There’s another thing worth noting about this conversation which has slowly dawned on me listening back to it and others I’ve recorded since this one. It is the unease around discussing detail in classical music – and actually any subject. I often sense I need to give permission to a contributor to go a little deeper into the detail too. At the same time as giving that permission I recognise I’m experiencing a kind of imposter syndrome, perhaps even a nosiness, asking. But as someone who loves the genre, I always want more and more detail. Because by appreciating more and more the finer detail of what’s involved, then I can arrive at a deeper understanding of the art.

Expect detail on sound production, Joy’s compositional process, her take on female composers (including the questions not to ask a female composer – you;ll be glad to hear I didn’t slip up by the way), and some valuable insights into the role of a conductor, and the way they sometimes need to communicate to players.

Music: Vriend’s ‘Anatomy of Passion‘ performed live by Joy Lisney in 2004.

More information about Joy’s 8th June concert can be found on the Southbank Centre website or at www.joylisney.com.

Sound Unbound 2019 at Barbican

A glorious escape on a sunny Saturday in May. Just what the doctor ordered.

Sun, outdoor music, free entry, and no need for a ticket. The recipe for drawing in the crowds to hear live music? It certainly seemed that way at the Barbican’s brilliant Sound Unbound weekender on Saturday.

And if some of the events I attended appeared a little over-subscribed that was a measure of the popularity of the offer. And perhaps that hinted at a different kind of model for experiencing live music: get people through the doors for free where the barriers for engagement are low, raise the profile of performers, and drive revenue from on-demand after the event.

Certainly, being able to come and go as I pleased suited me well. Getting me to traverse the ‘Culture Mile’ to go to different venues also meant I got a sense of the Barbican Centre in relation to say, Smithfield Market. This in itself gave the weekend’s events a real festival, almost Fringe-feel which very quickly recharged by batteries.

The most arresting experience was undoubtedly at nightclub Fabric where NonClassical’s eclectic mix of ambient electronica drew me into the kind of venue classical music promoters are increasingly seeking out to appeal to an unorthodox audience, and where I felt I was stepping back into the dark world of my twenties. The uncompromising warnings about single-use cubicals, and inevitable statements about the establishment’s zero-tolerance on drugs, an inevitable reminder of the venue’s primary function gave the experience an unexpectedly hard edge.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast Ep 39 – Violinist Itamar Zorman discusses the music of composer Paul Ben-Haim

Podcast 39 features Borlotti-Buitoni Trust Award winner from 2014 violinist Itamar Zorman. We met at the Southbank Centre in London in late March 2019.

Itamar was born in Tel-Aviv, studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Julliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. He’s performed with the Mariinsky Orchestra, German Radio Philharmonic, KBS Symphony in Seoul and the HR SinfonieOrchester in Frankfurt, and in a variety of international concert venues. Find out more at itamarzorman.com

The Borlotti-Buitoni Trust’s award supports Itamar and other musicians like him in raising his professional profile and in turned helped Itamar research the work of composer Paul Frankenberger who fled Germany during the Nazi regime and moved to British Mandate of Palestine in 1930s. There he assumed the name of Paul Ben-Haim and continued composing. The CD released at the beginning of May reflects Itamar’s ongoing fascination of the Jewish composer and illustrates the way in which the composer’s musical language changed over his career.

When the perception of a distant lands merges with familiar language and a blend of accents the resulting conversation something unusual occurs for me as a listener.

When the rhythm of that conversation takes unexpected turns then attention increases. There is then something almost musical in this conversation. A dialogue of the kind I’ve not experienced before in this podcast series.

I listen to this podcast back in the edit and hear a man who thinks carefully before he speaks. I like that. We don’t do that enough in our everyday exchanges with one another. We don’t allow ourselves the time to consider what the person has said and how we can best respond.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a moment my contribution to this conversation with violinist Itamar Zorman about his release of music by Paul Ben-Haim is especially fascinating. It’s the moments in between what I say and how he replies that hook me in, moments that forces me to lean in and focus.

Expect lots of delightfully nerdy detail.

Singers wanted for scratch project @ The Union Chapel, N1 2UN on 15th June 2019

A call-out from podcasting peer Ben Eshmade which I’m pleased to share on the blog.

Musicians Dominic Stitchbury (Chaps Choir, Bellow Fellows) and Ben See (LaLaLa Records) are inviting would-be singers for a scratch project at the The Union Chapel, London, N1 2UN on 15tb June from midday for two hours.

No choir/performing experience is required, just turn up for the preparation sessions and take part in the final event.

You will learn some short songs in harmony by ear and prepare to sing them with hundreds of other voices in the wonderful acoustics of The Union Chapel (located next to Highbury & Islington station.)

Dominic & Ben are exploring the themes of expansion, commonalty & togetherness through the voice and will be joined by Archie, Chaps Choir, The Electric Belles, Bellow Fellows, Esmeralda Conde Ruiz and the Grandmother Project. From Call To Choir will be a celebration of singing!

Session details:
Friday 14th June
18.00-20.00 rehearsal @ St John’s Bethnal Green

Saturday 15th June
9.30-11.30 rehearsal @ The Union Chapel
12.00-14.00 – PERFORMANCE

Register your interest in taking part by filling in this form:
https://domstichbury.typeform.com/to/PNZzqu

More details will be sent your way a little nearer the time.