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.

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.

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.

Steven Osborne, the SCO, and a tidy desk

Look at that desk/wall area. Just look at it. That’s my recently tidied-up desk. I love it. I love the sight of it.

The drawers have been emptied, the contents rationalised, photo and audio assigned to dedicated boxes, and some of postcards I’ve acquired over the years Blu-Tacked to the wall.

Now when I look up from my monitor I glance at my three favourite concert venues, Britten, Pears, and Lord and Lady Harewood, and Port Isaac – the first place I tasted freedom. I’ve included the BBC staff event ticket from 2013 as a reminder to me not hold a grudge against my former employer and all but two of its employees.

I’ve a new working regime, including a shutdown process for late Friday afternoon comprising a quick dash round with a duster and the Dyson.

New year, new habits.

Today’s inbox features two well-pitched and beautifully well-crafted emails from PRs.

First, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s ‘Fruitmarket Project’ – a collaboration between the orchestra and people living in the outlying areas of Edinburgh where, I’m told, the centre of the city is of little relevance to those living in the poorer suburbs.

The important detail:  Incredible Distance – an arts project with adults living in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, unveiled as part of the Society of Scottish Artists 121st Annual Exhibition and will also be exhibited at WHALE Arts (22 January – 9 February) and the Fruitmarket Gallery (12 February – 16 February).

I’d heard about it in a pre-Christmas tete-a-tete in South Ken. Sounded interesting. Podcasty. Hinted that. Hoping I might be able to get it featured in some way. Sounds like a very Thoroughly Good kind of thing. Watch this space – it’s a race between TG and that Music Matters on Radio 3.

And second, unexpectedly, a promo for the Steven Osborne gig at Kings Place in 8 February (though I have been in the same car as him and his manager when I was ridiculously drunk). Osborn introduced the only performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms years back that makes the work (and the world) make sense to me right now.

Review: Manchester Collective at King’s Place

If it’s art it’s going to make me think. That’s my present rule of thumb. And art, I’m reminded this evening, extends beyond the stage. It’s often to be found in the experience that surrounds a concert.

Manchester Collective’s mixed programme of contemporary, commissioned and new works was arresting, compelling and visceral. Less concert more live performance playlist, there were moments in the first half when the enthusiastic and appreciative applause from the near-capacity audience interrupted my train of thought.

Textures, looping melodic cells, three dimensional sound, and live sound production pushed me in directions I wasn’t expecting to go. I felt at one with the art – something new to explore that connected with my emotions in a refreshingly immediate way. I was in an imaginary world created just for me. Mild sensory deprivation caused by the black curtains and focussed lighting – we might well have been in a TV studio. When unusual sounds swirl all around you it doesn’t take much to get into flow and immerse yourself in the experience.

At the same time I felt like an imposter.

This may in part be down to some pre-concert conversations I engaged in, one in particular about how I reckoned that people like me (who emote unabashed about things they respond to) are at odds with the edgier spaces where contemporary music authentically resides. It’s not ‘cool’ to wax lyrical I told myself. An odd thought to grapple with given that I felt welcomed, was enjoying the experience of hearing such a carefully chosen selection of sounds, and left eager to hear more.

There is a vibe to the good kind of contemporary music concerts – a self-assuredness – which is completely at odds with the nervous hand-wringing I detect in the conventional ‘classical’ world. This apparent self-confidence shifts my perspective. Contemporary musicians know their audience well, and the connections they make and the conversations had reflect this. There’s no need to cajole in the contemporary music world. Unbridled imaginations make the product a tantalising prospect amongst a niche and committed audience. Marketing isn’t something that is brought in to reflect the product; the product markets itself from inception.

There was a meditative quality to the entire programme. Total immersion meant that any interruption to my music-infused introspection – say, like applause – felt like an imposition. That speaks volumes to the programming. What I want next is to experience that same programme in a physical space that enhances the sound-world the music creates – Peckham’s invigorating rawness makes South East London a must-visit destination for the Manchester Collective. Alexandra Palace, Wilton’s Music Hall (maybe), or even a disused underground station (I’ve no idea whether that’s practicable), would create an even more intense sensory experience.

Jonathan Harvey’s Ricecare absorbing, Reich’s Violin Phase electric, and Vessel’s The Birth of the Queen utterly enthralling. What I heard of Daniel Elms’ 100 Demons had a Reich-feel to it. All of it the kind of thing you didn’t realise you needed to experience. Especially appreciated the austere post-war labarotory-style lighting – gave proceedings a warehousy feel. I wonder whether there’s scope to present the programme without a break.