Are Irish music competitions finally getting to grips with gender?

It took nearly 30 years for a woman to win the Dublin International Piano Competition

William Thomas: the first male singer to win first prize in the Veronica Dunne Singing Competition

William Thomas: the first male singer to win first prize in the Veronica Dunne Singing Competition

 

There are things you think you simply couldn’t make up. And, no, I’m not thinking of Brexit.

At the time of the publication of The Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland in 2013, the Dublin International Piano Competition, first held in 1988, had never awarded its top prize to a woman or to a player from Asia. 

And the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition, first held in 1995, had never given its first prize to a man, although its list of winners did include sopranos from Asia: South Korea’s Byung-Soon Lee in 1999 and Japan’s Mari Moriya in 2006. All of the competition’s winners between 1995 and 2016 were sopranos.

Well, whether it’s just a matter of happenstance or the filtering of gender and race issues into the world of classical music, those apparent imbalances have all been sorted now.

The piano competition was won by Frenchwoman Nathalia Milstein in 2015 and by South Korean Sae Yoon Chon in 2018. And, at the National Concert Hall last week, the singing competition for the first time gave its €10,000 first prize to a man, 24-year-old British bass William Thomas. 

For me, Thomas was a clear winner, but more by process of elimination than anything else

The competition’s line-up on the night of the finals was actually quite striking: five men made the cut and only one woman, 24-year-old Polish soprano Joanna Kedzior, who was awarded the €5,000 second prize and also the €500 Dame Joan Sutherland prize for most promising singer. The €500 Dermot Troy Prize for best Irish singer went to 26-year-old mezzo-soprano Carolyn Holt, and the €1,000 audience prize went to 28-year-old US baritone Emmett O’Hanlon, who was also awarded the €3,000 fourth prize. 

Not a vintage year

But what of the actual singing? Based on the performances at the finals (I did not get to hear any of the previous three rounds), it was not a vintage year for the competition. For me, Thomas was a clear winner, but more by process of elimination than anything else. Every other finalist had limitations or outright flaws that I expected would rule them out for ultimate success. 

Thomas showed a lovely voice, a pleasing and adaptable presence, and intelligent musicianship in arias by Stravinsky, Gounod and Rossini. But he lacked the kind of wow factor which was delivered by previous winners. I’m thinking in particular of Pumeza Matshikiza in 2010 and Nadine Sierra in 2013, whose thrilling competition performances would likely have stood out in any company. 

The cheers at the end of O’Hanlon’s performance of the Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia made the audience’s grá for him quite clear. He has an immediacy and engagement that make him a crowd-pleaser, but it’s hard to imagine that the jury would not have been tut-tutting about his recklessness with finer detail.

Oddly uningratiating

I wouldn’t argue with the jury’s ranking of Kedzior, whose voice I found oddly uningratiating, but whose handling of it was at times beautifully nuanced. 

The task of guiding the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra through the adventure of working with the mixed talents of the finalists and taking them through a range of styles – from Gluck and Handel, through familiar Italian repertoire and also Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Stravinsky – was handled with aplomb by Laurent Wagner.  

The possession of a good voice is frequently mistaken for natural musicality and artistic talent

The Veronica Dunne competition is probably slightly misnamed. It’s not so much a singing competition as an opera singing competition. The rules enforce opera arias in all four rounds, and only in their 20-minute programme for the semi-final do the singers have the option to add songs or oratorio excerpts to the mandatory opera arias. And yet, in spite of the operatic focus, there were finalists for whom the acting –the communication of a hint of character or situation – effectively stopped whenever they were not singing. 

Not the full package

Singing, of course, is not the full package for an opera career. Just as an amazing voice is not the full package for a musical career of any kind. This latter issue was wonderfully expressed by the Russian pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus, whose pupils included Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter and Radu Lupu.  

“The possession of a good voice,” he wrote in his book The Art of Piano Playing, “is frequently mistaken for natural musicality and artistic talent. Yet we do not tend to consider a young pianist musical mainly because he happens to have a good Bechstein grand at home.”

The published rules of the Veronica Dunne competition are completely blank when it comes to what the jury takes into consideration. How much is to do with vocal quality? How much is to do with artistry? Does a singer’s choice of arias matter?

In the piano competition entrants are required to “demonstrate an understanding of programme-building, an ability to play in a variety of musical styles and, most importantly, show the depth of their own musicianship rather than mere technical brilliance”.

It would be interesting to know more about the priorities of the jury as they deliberate on what they have heard. 

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