Last Night of the International Vocal Finals
It has been a long and exciting night, what with four more singers and then an hour's wait for the jury's decision. It's
midnight now, but I might as well get on with this review, since I have a cold coming and the night threatens to be much longer.
First, tonight's singers.
Phillip Addis -- Baritone (Canada) He's certainly the best looking of the four men in the finals: tall, thin,
strong jaw, flashing smile, thick shock of black hair. A tremendous performer too. He put across all his songs with terrific
feeling, from the comic "Largo al factotum" (Rossini's Barber of Seville) to the the lugubrious "It is enough" from
Mendelssohn's Elijah. For a baritone, Mr. Addis has an incredibly bright ringing voice; his high notes sound like
a tenor's. But I missed the rich, velvety low notes that you want from a baritone; they simply weren't there. Mr. Addis is
only twenty-eight years old, though, and his voice certainly will deepen with time.
Elena Xanthoudakis -- Soprano (Australia) Another very accomplished performer, looking very striking in a crimson
dress to go with red hair. Her techique is formidable but it struck me that her whole performance was a bit pushed. Not much
subtlety. In "No word from Tom" (Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) it struck me that her style was almost more suitable
to the musical theatre genre. What bothered me most about her performance was her constant acting out of scenes. She appeared
to be trying to create whole operas in the tiny space alloted to her. Apparently juries go for this but I prefer a more restrained
presentation in the concert format.
Anna Kasyan -- Soprano (Georgia) At first, I thought this lady's high notes didn't have a very solid core,
a bit too breathy. Later, they sounded harsh. Her "Chanson triste" by Duparc never really got off the ground; the sound wasn't
lush enough. But then she sang "Comme autrefois" from Bizet's The Pearlfishers and it was ravishing, almost the whole
aria in pianissimo. If there were a prize for the best pianissimo singing, I would award it to her. Her voice did crack in
the fiendishly difficult -- because so soft -- final phrase, but who would hold that against such a beautiful performance?
And it didn't hurt that she looked a lot like Maria Callas: black hair pulled back tightly, dark eyes, very white skin,
red lips and strong jaw. Some people thought her black flouncy gown with white silk flowers was too Eastern Europe but I thought
it very dramatic. I also loved the fact that she was one of the few women to give a deep curtsey at the applause.
Chantal Dionne -- Soprano (Canada) A very dignified, more mature-seeming singer, in an understated grey gown,
with sparkly stuff on it and a matching shawl. She sang virtually perfectly. Her "Chanson triste" (Duparc, again) was lovely
and her "Se come voi" (Puccini's Le Villi) was very touching, real Puccini quality emotion. In her final selection,
"Klange der Heimat" (J. Strauss' Die Fledermaus), she sounded a bit tired to me and she short-changed us on the final
And now for the decisions. First my marks. You have to understand that I'm working without a net here. I don't
read anything in the papers, don't discuss the singers before posting my reviews, and know hardly anything about them. This
is all stricly my personal reaction. So much for the disclaimer. Now I have to admit that my marking scheme (see the explanation
of it in the first night's review) didn't work terribly well. I ended up with five people tied for second place. So I had
to fiddle the marks a bit when it came down to the wire. Let's say I invented a new category: just how did Patrick feel about
this singer overall? Believe me, it wasn't easy juggling everything without a calculator, trying to keep track of my slips
of paper while wanding through the crowd in the lobby waiting for the annoucement of the judge's results.
But here's what I came up with:
Lauren Skuce: 98
Peter Mc Gillivray: 90
Sin Nyung Hwang: 86
Simon Bailey: 84
Chantal Dionne: 82
Phillip Addis: 80
Shannon Mercer: 80
Anna Kasyan: 78
Peiyi Wang: 76
Shadi Torbey: 72
Christina Selmacovich: 72
Elena Xanthoudakis: 72
The judges were to award only six prizes and you'll notice that I had a tie for sixth. But I mentioned to someone
(there's a witness) that if I had to choose between them, Phillip Addis would be the one to go into the winners' circle. I
have a three-way tie for last place but that doesn't matter since the ranking only concerns prize winners.
The judge's choices (they don't award marks):
1st prize ($25,000): Sin Nyung Hwang
2nd prize ($15,000): Peter McGillivray
3rd prize: ($7,500): Elena Xanthoudakis
4th prize (a tie, $4,500 each): Phillip Addis and Anna Kasyan
No 5th prize awarded because of the tie for 4th.
6th prize ($3,000): Chantal Dionne
So I had four of the six official winners among my chosen six. The two that the judges ranked higher than I did
were Elena Xanthoudakis and Anna Kasyan. I take a little pride in having nailed Peter McG for 2nd place precisely. And, from
what I can gather, few audience members had picked Sin Nyung Hwang as one of the winners. She was the first of the twelve
to sing and I loved her. Later, I wondered if it was just the excitement of the opening night that had affected my judgement,
but I had to go with my gut feeling about her. The judges didn't include Simon Bailey among the winners, although I did. To
me, his high spirits were infectious but it's possible his clowning was too much for the jurors. My big goof vis a vis the
judges was Lauren Skuce. Everybody was saying that she'd had a bad night, but I still think hers was the best voice, the most
professional, the most truly world-class. So maybe she was a bit flat. Are we going to be all retentive and nit-picky here?
Not me. In any case, my openly acknowledging my choice, in the face of pretty formidable opinion to the contrary, proves
just how honest I'm being with you.
It was lovely to see the jurors come on stage, lead by Carlo Bergonzi, walking with a cane and getting a very affectionate
ovation from the crowd. (He sang Rhadames in the Met's re-broadcast of the 1960s Aida with Leontyne Price this
past year.) Other big names among the judges: Shirley Verrett, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Tom Krause, Joseph Rouleau, Mario Bernardi.
Ms Hwang's entrance when called from the wings as the first place winner was very touching. She was overcome, and she
virtually stumbled into the limelight, wiping away tears, pushing back her thick hair and trying to get control of herself.
You kinda got the feeling she hadn't been thinking she had it in the bag. And Peter McGillivray, who was already
on stage as the second place winner, was very gracious and chummy towards her. He was demonstratively jolly and
magnanimous, just like any good-ol Canadian boy.
And now to bed for this old and not so jolly -- but very satisfied -- Canadian boy.
City Life (Montreal)
This marks the first installment in a new genre for Dilettante's Diary. We've never talked about city life here, but
it's an aspect of our culture as much as any other, isn't it? And culture is what we're all about. So here goes.
As my last visit to Montreal was years ago, it seems a few fresh impressions might be worth noting. The main thing about
Montreal, of course, ce sont les patisseries. People used to say Montreal was the city of churches but, no, it's
the city of bakeries. So many fabulous pastries on offer. In a visit of just four days, it's impossible to sample all of them,
even for one so dedicated to the task as I. In the end, I will have failed miserably but, believe me, my efforts have been
sincere. In fact, I've been so dedicated to the pursuit that I've cut out meals for the most part, so that the pastry tastings
could be spread throughout the day, with just an occasional hamburger, a banana or a bit of cheese between times. So
far, the best thing I've discoverd is a sugary almond croissant, very flakey and loaded with almond, from a bakery on Sherbrooke,
near Claremont. (As I wasn't planning to do a review, I didn't note the name of the place.) The eclairs I've sampled have
been very good in terms of lucious whipped cream but the bun part hasn't been as light and delicate as those of the late lamented
Little Pie Shoppe in Toronto (it was on Yonge, near Eglinton).
About Montrealers, themselves: it strikes me that, compared to Torontonians, they're more interested in living than in
acquiring. Why? More bicycles ridden by apparently middle class people downtown. You get the feeling that it's not so important
to have the luxurious car. More prosperous looking people on the subway too -- all day long, not just at rush hour. All
the funky old apartments around -- not everything torn down for upscale condos. As for the old problem of what language
to use, I usually address people in whatever language they have been using before my approach. Usually that's French, and
our exchange continues accordingly. If they sense that I'm not following something, they switch to English briefly. But if
someone is speaking English to start with, it seems silly for me to address them in French, not just because their English
is probably a lot better than my French, but English could very well be their first language. Montrealers may not be as polite
as Torontonians, but they're friendlier -- ie. less uptight, formal anglo..
Vocal Finals: Second Night (If you haven't read about the first night, skip to the entry below.)
There continues to be an incredible aspect to this experience. Here we are again, for the second night, people from all
over the city and the world, gathered for another feast of opera singing: all for twenty bucks. There's a good freel about
this audience. You know everybody's keen, not because their wife dragged them or because their mother had season's tickets
and she couldn't make it tonight. You begin to notice the same people each night and you start comparing notes with complete
strangers. On the way out, you may be walking beside somebody who's congratulating a couple of parents on their daughter's
stellar performance. And standing over to one side, in his jeans with his cap on backwards, is the guy who was so heroic
on stage last night in white tie and tails. So you go up to him and discuss his performance. (No picket lines tonight, glad
Next time they have this competition -- and (Hallelulia!) they tell me it's going to be in 2007 rather than 2008 -- I'll
have to come for the semi-finals too. That way you can have more fun sorting through the wider range of ability (about 50
singers, I believe). In the finals, with just twelve, they're really all winners. So it's very difficfult to make choices
Which brings to mind certain questions about such competitions. While judging a journalism award recently, it struck me
that competitions are comparative -- and that's all. In other words, if you didn't win, it doesn't mean that you didn't sing/write
well; it only means that, for some reason or other, this other person sang/wrote in a way that seemed somewhat better. If
that person had stayed home, you would have won. And you would be on top of the world. But does that really mean that you're
"the best"? As for that person who did win this time, maybe there's somebody at home who, had he or she shown up,
could have beat that person. So what does it really mean to win? Well, I guess in a general sense the striving to win
raises the standards and makes people do their best.
By the way, the order of the singers is chosen by lottery, in case you're wondering. Tonight they were all women. One person
scored in the very high nineties (according to my system) but I'm not telling who it was -- not until the final results.
Christina Stelmacovich -- Mezzo-soprano (Canada). She has a lovely voice and she uses it well. Her "Lachrymoso"
from Haydn's Stabat Mater made me think what a rare treat it would be to hear that voice coming from your choir loft
some Sunday. But the voice did not come across fully in the concert hall. Her performance fell short (for me) in
the presentation. The most bothersome thing was her moving her body in time to the music. At times, she was more or less conducting
herself with one hand. Is this nervousness or is it just a personal way of singing? It appeared to be an attempt to put across
the song but it actually got in the way of the music.
Shannon Mercer -- Sooprano (Canada). An excellent voice. She sings almost perfectly. One or two of the very top
high notes weren't totally secure. "Rejoice Greatly" from Messiah taken at such a terrific clip that it was very
exciting. WIth a complete change of mood, "Adieu notre petite table" from Massenet's Manon was very touching. And
lots of humour in "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Barber of Seville. The one thing I think Ms Mercer needs is an
acting coach who can get her to stop the grimacing -- what we used to call "face acting". In this department, less would be
Peiyi Wang -- Mezzo-soprano (China) One of those very lush, velvety mezzo voices (think Marilyn Horne). The top
notes don't have much brightness or ring to them but maybe that's ok in a mezzo (?). However, the voice doesn't have much
punch to it in any register, with the result that there is a kind of lulling sameness to all the pieces, lovely though the
singing is, almost a blandness -- even in Mozart's "Ch'io mi scordi di te" which should be firey.
Lauren Skuce -- Soprano (United States) Think of that scene in the movie Amadeus where Salieri
has composed a little piece to welcome Mozart to court. After hearing the lovely composition, Mozart says, "Shouldn't
it go like this?" and he sits down and plays a much more interesting version. That was more or less my feeling about
what was happeing when Ms. Skuce began to sing. Everybody else had been singing very nicely but here was somebody
who showed how it can be done ideally. What a glorious voice. From the tiniest sound, it opens out into a gorgeous, ringing,
golden tone. And the interpretation is great too. Two old favourites "Dove Sono" (Mozart) and "Sempre libera" (Verdi) got
nailed with spectacular perfection. Ms. Skuce's singing even made me fall under the spell of Carl Orff and Richard
Strauss -- which I would never have thought possible. Between selections, Ms. Skuce was coughing and blowing her nose. (By
the way, there is no applause until the end of a performer's five pieces -- which must be maddeningly difficult for the singers.)
People say she had a cold. A cynic might have said the coughing was just to scare us -- you know, the way an acrobat will
pretend to be losing balance on the highwire. It cerrtainly did scare me. She's such a fabulous singer that you couldn't bear
the thought of her taking a fall. I'll accept that the cold was real but the only effect on her singing that
I could detect was occasional shortness of breath where a phrase got broken. But are you going to let such miniscule
slips spoil such a beautiful achievement? We're not talking about horse racing here.
Jeunesses Musicales International Vocal Competition: First Night (Theatre Maisonneuve, Montreal)
Standing on stage and singing opera is the most sublime thing a human being can do. So I'm doing the next best thing --
sitting and watching these young people do it. I've always wanted to attend this event and it only comes up every three years.
It suddenly appeared that this might be the year I could do it, if I just reneged on all my Toronto commitments and responsibilities
for these four days. No prob!
The first night (Monday) was thrilling beyond belief. I was sitting third row centre; the hall was only two-thirds
full. Don't ask me why. Tickets are only $20. Culturally speaking it's the best deal ever. Each contestant sings
five arias, in at least three languages. You really should drop everything and come.
I won't give my final scores until the judges reveal theirs. In the meantime, just some remarks on the singers. Here's
my scoring system, though, so you can use it yourself if you're following the concerts on CBC Radio Two. There are five categories,
with ten marks for each category (double the total to get the mark out of 100): A: beauty of voice; B: Musicality, emotion
(did the singing move me?); C: Accuracy (pitch, phrasing, etc); D: Style (an appreciation for the different types of music);
E: Presentation (demeanour, personality, etc.) Hint: generally, the marks are quite high (otherwise the singers wouldn't be
here). The purpose of the scoring system, really, is just to see if there is any area in which one singer might be marked
Sin Nyung Hwang, soprano (South Korea): This lady is a star. She could hardly have won me over any more effectively
than she did -- starting off with Mozart's "Allelulia". A beautiful voice, used excellently. At first, the very top
notes were not quite as bright and true as one might wish but, by the end, they were glorious. Wonderful change of feeling
for the Ernest Chausson aria. In the orchestral introduction to the final aria from Donizetti, I wish the radio listeners
could have seen her laughing, and apparently singing along to herself.
Shadi Torbey, Bass (Belgium): It seemed to me that he didn't really get a chance to show himself at his best in
the first part of his program. But once he got to the fourth aria, a real barn-burner from Rossini, I wanted it to keep going
and never stop. He wisely ended his program with Aaron Copland's goofy "I bought me a cat" which allowed him to cut loose
and brought a tremendous ovation.
Simon Bailey, Baritone (England): When this fresh-faced lad with the short brush-cut bounded on stage, you'd have
thought he was going to launch into something from the Barenaked Ladies -- except for the white tie and tails. What a performer! Take
that aria where Figaro taunts Cherubino about going into the army. Mr. Bailey put it across with so much elan that you
understood more of the Italian that you thought you did. In his comic piece from Rossini, he was leaning on the conductor's
podium at one point, singing directly to the conductor "I can't get any peace", then he pulled a Union Jack out of the pocket
of his dress trousers to wipe his eyes. Oh, by the way, he has a very beautiful voice, perfectly handled.
Peter McGillivray, Baritone (Canada): This baritone is a very different matter. Not relying on charm at all, he
appears to take himself very seriously. And with good reason! This was the most intensely communicative singer of the evening.
His aria from Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was like one, sustained clarion call that grabbed you by the throat and
didn't let go until the final note. Wagner's "Hymn to the Eveningstar" (as we know it) was meltingly lovely, thanks in no
small part to the pickup orchestra under Daniel Lipton (see note below). His final number was another tour de force,
Ford's aria from Verdi's Falstaff. When the roar of approval broke from the audience, Mr. McGillvray's face
relaxed into a surprised, boyish grin that seemed to say: Gee, did I really do it?
Note on the orchestra: The members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were picketing Place Des Arts in their white ties
and tails. I know they have issues with the management of their OSM and, given their strike, I would not attend an OSM concert.
But I do not feel that they have issues with Jeunesses Musicales or with the many young singers who have come from around
the world for their big chance at this competition. So I wasn't going to let their labour dispute interfere with my getting
this once-in-three-year opportunity to attend the competition.
The movie opens with a guy reacting to a car accident. He says people don't touch each other in Los Angeles. That's why
they crash their cars: so that they can feel something. If you can buy that line, maybe this is the movie for you. Me, I could
only stick it for half an hour. The experience marks a milestone for me. For the first time ever, I asked for a refund.
It wasn't the violence that got to me. Or the gratuitous meanness, or the sexual assault. Or the scuzzy people. Or the
swearing, although it was getting tiresome that the script couldn't find any way for people to express strong emotions other
than the word "fuck" (about 100 times in the first 15 minutes).
What did me in was the phony writing (check that fatuous opening gambit). Every scene crackles with so much over-the-top
speechifying that it feels like a screenwriting class. Most of the verbiage attempts to come at racism from various angles
but, as far as I could tell, it doesn't have anything to do with real life or real people. Or, is there a certain night in
LA when everybody goes at their partners, with eyes bulging and teeth bared? Maybe it has something to do with the lunar cycle.
With all the over-acting going on, the many big stars in the cast are mostly at their worst, but you can't blame them; they're
only giving what's asked of them.
I know writer/director Paul Haggis is from around these parts and I feel you should root for the home town boy -- especially
since his script for Million Dollar Baby lost out at the Oscars this year. But he's trying too hard here to hammer
home the message, "Hey, Toto, we're not in London, Ontario now!"
Rating (for first half hour): G (i.e. "Gawdawful")
The Kite Runner (Novel) by Khaled Hosseini, 2003
The question is: can a best-selling book be any good? Probably not, I'm thinking. To be really popular, a book has to give
people what they want without any struggle. People like their entertainment to be obvious and accessible. God forbid that
there should be any heavy-lifting in the mental department.
Mind you, a hit book needs some special hook, some bit of arcane knowledge that will flatter people by making them think
they're learning something. What would work really well would be something like, let's say, secret messages hidden in the
works of one of the world's most famous painters.
The main thing that The Kite Runner has going for it is the setting -- Afghanistan. For most of us English-speaking
readers, learning the history of that blighted country qualifies as educational. Onto this fascinating background, Mr. Hosseini
has grafted the product of a software program on how to construct a novel. Make that two such software packages. There is
here enough coincidence, parallelism, symbolism, imagery, conflict and outright melodrama to make Charles Dickens blush. Love
and marriage, illness and death, right and wrong, justice and revenge are dished up with the insight and sophistication of
the writing on a fortune cookie.
Except for the friendship between two young boys that lies at the heart of the story. Showing an unexpectedly dark side
of the psyche, this relationship intrigues -- up to a point. For my taste, the narrator indulges in too much breast-beating.
So much death and tragedy, so many lives ruined as a result of one moment of weakness when he was about twelve years old.
Enough already! But maybe I am more forgiving than Mr. Hosseini's narrator -- at least when it comes to my own failings.
That raises another question: are jealous critics especially hard on really popular novels?
Aquavision 2005: Metamorphosis Toronto Watercolour Society (Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery until May 23)
If you’re wondering about all these "Metamorphosis" shows, they’re part of a city-wide festival on the theme,
initiated by Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. Several arts groups have become involved. It would be immodest of me to review
this show since I have two pictures in it, but I just wanted to let you know about it. And while we’re at it, I can’t
resist mentioning a few favourites. If there could be more prizes, my choices would be: Shelly Beach’s luminous, shimmering
underwater scene, D.D. Gadjanski’s wonderful, bright green organic shapes swirling on a dark background, Charline Gardhouse’s
delicate, loose flowers in "Tenderly", and Virginia May’s stunningly simple (but fiendishly difficult to execute) composition
of a lump of sail caught up in a halliard.
Graduate Exhibition Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto, May 6-8)
After the TWS opening, I hurried over to OCAD for a quick look at what the young art grads are about to unleash on the
world. With not much time to find my way around the bewildering four-floor building, I confined myself pretty much to the
painting and drawing on the fourth floor.
My favourite pictures of those that I had time to see -- Paul Aiello' cityscapes. Great, messy concoctions with all kinds
of scraping and splattering, they're almost abstract, with just enough realistic detail to let you know they're about cities.
In some cases, it looks like he used bits of photographs in the paintings. I had to love Braden Labonté's painting for it's
title: "Dean Thought He'd Be Making A Positive Impression on the Ladies by Arriving at the Box Social Casually Underdressed."
The picture shows rather aloof women and, watching them from across the room, a shy, naked young man. Jennifer McGregor has
arranged a charming series of twenty or so tiny squares (about two inches on each side) in a long horizontal row. I guess
you'd call them collages: each of them has little chunks of colour in abstract patterns and they have wacky titles like "Lion's
Breath in Winter".
Straying briefly into other areas, I was struck by Lisa Whitelaw's close-up black and white photos of the handles of gas
pumps: what beautifully sensuous lines, such dramatic use of negative space. Some video installations were visually brilliant
but the verbal content tended to be the ramblings of young men who didn't have anything interesting to say. One video
in the award winners' section on the second floor offered a strange mixture of droll domesticity and foreign tragedy but,
after five mintues of watching, I couldn't figure out what it was about. So I came away assured that the art of the
future will keep me guessing.
The main reason for bringing this book home from the library was the picture of a grand piano on the cover. The grand piano
is humanity's most beautiful invention and any book cover that acknowledges that deserves a closer look. Also, how can you
not want to love a book with such a title?
Inside, the book is less endearing. It purports to be the life story of a contemporary composer told in the form of
liner notes to CDs. The composer comes from a horrible family and he and his repellent compositions fully live up to that
promise. The author of the liner notes is a hapless young man hired to write the composer's biography. You can’t help
wondering whether this is anything other than an attempt by Mr. Miller to show how well he can mimick a certain pseudo-intellectual
kind of writing, I find that kind of empty exercise sophomoric and tiresome.
But I kept reading in the hope of finding some point to it all. Is it a spoof on contemporary music? On the self-indulgent,
misunderstood artist? On music and/or art criticism? On biography-writing? When you're reading Stephen Leacock's The Marine
Excursion of the Knights of Pythias, you don't keep asking yourself what the point is. You're too busy laughing. There
wasn't much of that going on here. Not even a hint of a smile, mostly just a puzzled frown.
Occasionally, the novel strays into interesting territory .The narrator talks about his relationship with his father and
about his attempts to make friends while writing the composer's biography. But these moments of genuine human interest quickly
pass and we're dumped back into the inane world of parody (or something).
This is Mr. Miller's first novel. (It was originally published as Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano.) According
to the cover blurbs, it got tons of critical acclaim. I congratulate Mr. Miller on his extraordinary success. May he have
a long and very satisfying career as a writer. And may he find something worth writing about.