Music Review: George London Competition at the Morgan Library

March 6th, 2013

A singing competition is no ideal biosphere for music to flourish.

Shawn Ehlers

The tenor Dominic Armstrong was one of the seven winners at the George London Competition at the Morgan Library & Museum on Friday. Other winners are pictured below. Seven singers also received Encouragement Awards.

A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.

Shawn Ehlers

The soprano Marcy Stonikas.

Shawn Ehlers

The soprano Felicia Moore.

Shawn Ehlers

The baritone Jamez McCorkle.

That much was clear from the finals of this year’s George London Competition, which offered the unnatural spectacle of opera arias morphing into sales pitches in the hands of 24 young American and Canadian singers. In the presence of a jury including opera greats like Nedda Casei and George Shirley, contestants apparently felt compelled to force out top notes and sing very loudly — notwithstanding the aggressively amplifying acoustics of the Gilder Lehrman Hall at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Given these conditions Dominic Armstrong’s gripping rendition of the mad scene from “Peter Grimes” on Friday afternoon was all the more remarkable: an unsettling, powerful performance in which Mr. Armstrong used his muscular tenor as a vehicle to bring Britten’s art to life.

Mr. Armstrong was one of the few memorable winners of this year’s seven $ 10,000 George London Foundation Awards. Another was Jessica Muirhead, who brought a multihued soprano with floating top notes to her rendition of “Non mi dir” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Nicholas Pallesen, a baritone, combined musicality and a keen dramatic instinct in an aria from “Falstaff.” 

With their awards for the baritone Jamez McCorkle and the sopranos Felicia Moore and Marcy Stonikas the jury seemed to prize above all power and volume. The tenor Noah Baetge received the award for a singer embarking on a Wagnerian career for “Walther’s Preislied” from “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” which showed off his clarion timbre, excellent breath control and convincing narrative flair.

Mr. Baetge was one of last year’s George London Encouragement Award winners, a distinction that was this year bestowed on seven singers: the tenor Adam Bonanni; the baritones John Brancy, Steven LaBrie and Jonathan Michie; the soprano Marina Costa-Jackson; and the mezzo-sopranos Rihab Chaieb and Shirin Eskandani.

Curiously, it was among these lesser awards ($ 1,000) that some of the more fully developed artistic personalities were to be found. Ms. Costa-Jackson’s “Stridono lassù” from “Pagliacci” was imbued with heartfelt emotion and the warmth of her polished soprano; just as noticeable was a sense of her enjoying the melodies she was singing.

Mr. Michie brought a liedlike sense of poetry to Britten’s “Look! Through the port” from “Billy Budd”; Mr. Brancy sang “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Korngold’s “Tote Stadt” with exquisite musicality and a natural sense of phrasing. Both men benefited greatly from the sensitive piano playing of Linda Hall, who ably accompanied all contestants.

Ms. Hall’s playing also added lovely nuances to the only Russian aria of the competition finals, “Aleko’s Cavatina” by Rachmaninoff, sung by Ben Wagner, a bass with a beguiling upper range, in a performance that covered a good deal of emotional terrain but won him no prize.

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