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Montreal International Music Competition Finals: Day One - McGillivray Hands Down

By Joseph So May 17, 2005

Well ladies and gentleman, the moment we have all been waiting for has arrived. After a week of singing at a very high level, twelve finalists have been chosen from a pool of 43 contestants from 15 countries and 5 continents, by a distinguished panel of judges that consisted of Carlo Bergonzi, Shirley Verrett, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Mario Bernardi, Tom Krause, Joseph Rouleau, and Eduardo del Campo. As expected, sopranos (6) dominated the list of finalists. Together with two mezzos, women outnumber men two to one. Unfortunately none of the four tenor semi-finalists made the cut, a not unexpected state of affairs and one that really underscores the dearth of good tenor voices today. Five Canadians are among the finalists — Peter McGillivray, Christina Stelmacovich, Shannon Mercer, Phillip Addis, and Chantal Dionne. The balance of the field comes from Korea, China, U.K., Georgia, Belgium, with one singer, soprano Elena Xanthoudakis representing both Australia and Greece.

Tonight’s first final session featured, in order of appearance, Sin Nyung Hwang (Korea), Shadi Torbey (Belgium), Simon Bailey (U.K.), and Peter McGillivray (Canada). They all sounded impressive from what I was able to discern from the CBC webcasts. But even with broad band service, the stream suffered from serious congestion, making the stop-and go listening and watching very unsatisfactory. Switching to dialup settings took care of the frequent stoppages, but the resultant postage stamp sized picture left a lot to be desired. It was then interesting to compare the internet experience with actually seeing and hearing these singers in the flesh:

Sin Nyung Hwang (Korea)

Mozart - Alleluja — Exultate jubilate

Chausson — Le temps des lilas

Mozart — O zittre nicht- Die Zauberfloete

Bellini — Ah! Se una volta sala — La Sonnambula

Donizetti — Quel guarda, il cavaliere — Don Pasquale

Ms. Hwang has a charming stage presence and a lovely timbre — a bright, vibrant sound, perfect for the repertoire she had chosen to sing. Her Alleluia was sung as a show piece, with all the notes in place, good coloratura except for a rather sketchy trill, and rather tight top notes. But overall, it was a fine start. Her second piece, the Chausson requires a darker, more sensuous tone than her bright, crystalline sound could provide. She sang it very well, but one wishes for more fullness of tone and more dynamic shading. On the other hand, the Queen of the Night aria was lovely, with just the right mix of lyricism and temperament. But her best singing was in the Bellini, for its beautifully sustained tone and mood. Wisely she put the Pasquale aria at the end. It really showed off her sparkling personality, and her interpretation was full of nice touches. An auspicious beginning to the evening.

Shadi Torbey (Belgium)

Telemann — Ich will den kreuzweg

Debussy — Maintenant que le pere de Pelleas — Pelleas et Melisande

Purcell — Arise, ye subterranean Winds — The Tempest

Rossini — Il di gia cade… Deh ti ferma… Que’ numi furenti — Semiramide

Copland — I bought me a cat

Torbey offered a rather eclectic program that showed off his versatility. The Telemann demonstrated an impressively long breath line, and the Purcell his excellent agility for a low voice. But he was at his very best in the aria from Pelleas — very expressive and heart-felt, with plenty of intensity. He was the prime casualty of the strike that hit the Montreal Symphony Orchestra this week — a very unfortunate state of affairs. As a result, the pickup orchestra was unable to perform the Semiramide aria, and the piece was accompanied on the piano. As an orchestral piece, it was quite a tour de force, but with piano, much of the impact was lost. It was a curious choice to put Copland at the end, but he certainly made the animal noises as well as, if not better than any other singer I have heard! Overall, I really enjoyed Torbey for his musicality and his intensity. The voice is beautiful, though one wishes for a more ideally rich and full bass sound, and he has the tendency to sing his low notes a bit too ‘open’.

Simon Bailey (United Kingdom)

Mozart — Cosi dunque tradisci… Aspri rimosi atroci

Berlioz — O misere des rois — L’Enfance du Christ

Handel — O jove, what land is this? — Hercules

Verdi — Il lacerate spirito — Simon Boccanegra

Rossini — Ah, perche la canobbi — Il viaggio a Reims

Britisher Simon Bailey can claim pride of place as the biggest ham in the competition. What a stage animal he is! Depending on your taste, you may be blown away by his extroverted persona or you may find him way over the top. But one thing is certain — he executed everything with such aplomb that it really leaves you breathless. And his histrionics was backed up with the requisite vocal goods — a medium sized bass-baritone of fine quality. As if to show that he has a serious side, his poised reading of the aria from L’Enfance du Christ was sung in a beautifully sustained mezza voce. Also impressive was the Handel, showing off his excellent coloratura, helped greatly by the crisp, precise playing of the orchestra under the baton of Daniel Lipton. His best singing was the Boccanegra aria — really lovely, capped by an excellent low note at the end. For me, his irrepressible antics during the Rossini — at one point even interacting with the conductor — was a bit too buffo for my taste and it took away from his excellent singing. But given it was Viaggio and it is after all Rossini, it was all in fun.

Peter McGillivray (Canada)

Elgar — Proficiscere anima Christiana — The Dream of Gerontius

Ravel — Don Quichotte a Dulcinee

Mozart — Hai gia vinta la causa! — Le Nozze di Figaro

Verdi — E sogno? O realta? — Falstaff

Wagner — O du mein holder Abenstern — Tannhauser

McGillivray has been singularly successful in competitions lately, and his performance tonight clearly demonstrated why. He is without a doubt a major talent, well on his way to a significant career. From the time I first heard him about five years ago when he was just finishing up his studies at University of Toronto to now, he has made stunning progress. Along the way, he has developed a rich, beautiful baritone, backed by a solid technique that allowed him to sing the top notes with assurance, not to speak of exemplary musicality and intelligence. There is a sincerity and directness of communication to his singing that is striking — this is a singer with something to say to his audience. To my ears, on this particular night, McGillivrary really outdid himself. He sang an extremely demanding program, from Mozart to Verdi to Wagner, with the obligatory French piece, and an English oratorio thrown in for good measure. He matched Bailey’s formidable expressive powers — especially in the Ford aria, but never descending into hamming it up. His top voice tonight was better than I had ever heard from him. His diction in the Gerontius was terrific. Only in a few low notes did he have less than true support. The Wolfram aria was sung with a lovely cantabile that made Wagner sounding almost bel canto. I have to say he won hands down this evening and his performance is now the one to beat. Stay tuned!

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