An Egyptian soprano adds to the great variety of Irish competition winners

Is there a gender or national bias in our high-profile music competitions? Sorry, conspiracy theorists, but no

The award of the first prize in last week's Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition to 24-year-old Egyptian soprano Fatma Said is a reminder of what a mixed bunch Ireland's long-standing international music competitions are.

I am not thinking of the various choral competitions but rather the ones in which individuals vie for the top honours. The oldest dates back to 1980, when the Dublin International Organ Competition was founded as a biennial event. It became triennial from 1990, changed its name to Pipeworks in 2005, and has since spread its wings to embrace organs in places as far apart as Belfast, Maynooth, Dundalk and Crosshaven.

The organ winners have come from Europe (including Ireland), north America and Asia, and the competition has also had years in which no first prize was awarded, as well as a year – 2014 – in which the top prize was shared.

The triennial Dublin International Piano Competition was held for the first time in 1988, and its rules stipulate that a first prize must always be awarded and that it can never be tied. The winning pianists have come from Europe, Russia and the US, but never Asia or Ireland. Like the organ competition, the list of first-prize winners has been male-dominated. Women made it to the top of the organ competition for the first time only in 2014 (Lisa Hummel shared the honour with Andrew Dewar) and at the piano competition in 2015 (last year's winner, Nathalia Milstein, can be heard at the NCH on February 17th).


The most varied of all

The Veronica Dunne competition is in one respect the most varied of them all. It has been won by an Irish soprano (but only when the competition was exclusively for Irish singers), an American soprano of Irish extraction (when Irish ancestry was a qualification for entry), a Korean soprano (when the spread was made international), and an Italian soprano (when entry was narrowed to singers from the European Union).

Since the competition has become consistently international the top prize has been taken by sopranos from Japan, South Africa, the US and now Egypt. No mezzo or male singer of any kind has ever been declared winner, and in its years as a fully international competition it has never been won by a European singer.

It is at the least a curious coincidence that the competitions with male artistic directors (Gerard Gillen, Peter Sweeney and Mark Duley for the organ competition; John O'Conor for the piano competition) have been dominated by male winners, whereas the singing competition (with Veronica Dunne herself as artistic director, although she is not on the jury) has been dominated by women.

There are all kinds of other differences between the competitions. The pianists are obliged to learn a specially commissioned test piece by an Irish composer. The organists used to have to do so, but that imposition is long gone. The organists performed out of sight of the jury until Mark Duley became director in 2002. Since then everyone’s identity has been in the open.

The singers sing very little: 16 minutes is the most allowed in any round, material may be repeated, and there are no set pieces. The organists and the pianists play for much longer, and the pianists’ semi-final programmes alone run to 50 minutes, plus the test piece.

Is there any conclusion to be drawn from the highly varied results? Is there a pro-soprano or an anti-European lobby dominating the jury at the Veronica Dunne competition? Is there an anti-Asian faction in the piano competition? Hardly. The juries change from year to year. And although conspiracy theorists do not like to take this into account, you can only judge any competition based on how people performed on the particular nights involved. Success can be a matter of lucky musicians finding themselves in the sweet spot at exactly the right time.

Think of the strange case of Finnish pianist Antti Siirala, who before his successes in Dublin and Leeds in 2003 had taken the top prize at the London International Piano Competition in 2000 in spite of having been eliminated from it. Siirala did not make the cut for the finals in London, but one of the chosen finalists withdrew and, after Siirala agreed to stand in to make up the numbers, he went on to win. Just think of the implications for the Dublin piano competition, where, due to financial constraints, the line-out for the finals has been reduced from six to four since 2012.

A couple of years after Siirala’s Dublin win, John O’Conor, the Dublin competition’s artistic director and jury chairman, told an interviewer, “By the end of the first line of the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, K533 [the first piece Siirala played in the competition], I think the whole jury had decided that this was the first-prize winner. It was just like I’d never heard the sonata before in my life.” That’s not a very heartening sentiment for anyone contemplating taking part in a competition.

Cheer levels

Last week’s line-up for the Veronica Dunne was pleasingly strong. The audience prize went to the vocally attractive, agile and thoroughly musicianly Said, although unless my ears were deceiving me the cheer level reached greater heights for the hefty American tenor William Davenport (30), who placed second.

Korean tenor Sehoon Moon (31), who placed fifth, had a real following, too. Guatemalan soprano Adriana Gonzalez (24) in third, and UK soprano Anna Anandarajh (28) in fourth both offered different strengths, one more emotional, the other more calculated, but neither showed as full a musical personality as Said. In sixth, American baritone Will Liverman (27), the singer to perform first on the night, took some time to settle down. In the end, his sense of theatre seemed to dominate over the finer points of musicianship.

The €500 Dermot Troy Prize for the best Irish singer went to tenor Patrick Hyland (30), the €1,000 Dame Joan Sutherland Prize for most promising singer to American soprano Shelley Jackson (29), and the €1,000 Wil Keune Prize for best performance of a Mozart aria rounded off Said's hat-trick.