Friday, 1 November 2019

The Grange Festival International Singing Competition

The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - Dame Felicity Palmer with Kiandra Howarth (1st Prize) - (Photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - Dame Felicity Palmer with Kiandra Howarth (1st Prize)
(Photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival International Singing Competition; Merchant Taylor's Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 October 2019
A terrifically strong line up of young singers, each in a 20-minute programme of arias from before 1830, accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music

Two years ago the first Grange Festival International Singing Competition was won by soprano Rowan Pierce [see my article], and the biennial competition returned for its second edition culminating in the final at Merchant Taylor's Hall on Thursday 31 October 2019. Six singers competed, Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Jaeil Kim (tenor), Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Samantha Clarke (soprano), and Jerome Knox (baritone). Each sang a 20-minute programme of arias (dating from before 1830) accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, conductor Peter Robinson. The judges were Michael Chance (artistic director of the festival), Hugh Canning (chief classical critic of the Sunday Times), Scott Cooper (director of artistic administration at the festival), David Gowland (of the Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artists programme), John Graham-Hall (tenor), Helen Hogh (from Groves Artists), Rosa Mannion (soprano and teacher at the Royal College of Music), Mary Miller (Bergen National Opera), Dame Felicity Palmer (patron of the competition), and Peter Robinson.

First up was soprano Kiandra Howarth [last seen as Konstanza in Mozart's at the festival, and in the Mozartists' Gluck double bill], who opened with a vibrant & touching account of the Countess' 'Dove sono' from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, complete with the dramatic recitative. Then came Cleopatra's 'Se pieta' from Handel's Giulio Cesare. Perhaps Howarth's voice is larger and more dramatic in this music than we are used to, but she was stylish with a lovely line and really made the music mean something. Finally, a real novelty, Lodoiska's 'Tournez sur moi votre colere' from Cherubini's Lodoiska, a terrific piece bringing her set to a close with vivid excitement.

The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - Dame Felicity Palmer with Claire Barnett-Jones, Samantha Clarke (joint 2nd Prize) - (Photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - Dame Felicity Palmer with Claire Barnett-Jones, Samantha Clarke (joint 2nd Prize) - (Photo Robert Workman)
Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston won the 2018 Handel Singing Competition [we heard her in Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St John's Smith Square last year, and in Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall]. She opened with a strong account of Farnace's 'Va, va l'error mio palesa' from Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto sung with lovely straight tone. Next she gave us a moving 'Che faro' from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, full of character with beautifully shaped phrases. Anastasio's aria 'Vedro con mio diletto' from Vivaldi's Giustino was something of a novelty, with fine passage-work over a throbbing accompaniment. Charlston concluded with a vivid performance of Ariodante's aria 'Dover, giustizia, amor' from Handel's opera, full of swagger with terrific passage-work.


Korean tenor Jaeil Kim studied in Germany and is currently at the studio of Frankfurt Opera.he opened with the aria 'Geduld, Geduld!' from Bach's St Matthew Passion. A strong performance, in a somewhat old-fashioned style. Ferrando's 'Un aura amorosa' from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte showcased Kim's vibrant tenor voice, confident and stylish though not in quite the lyric style we are used to. His final aria was Max's 'Durch di Walder, durch die Auen' from Weber's Der Freischutz, and here Kim seemed fully at home, with a vividly engaging performance which made you want to hear the whole opera.

After the interval it was the turn of mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones [last seen in Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Grimeborn Festival, where she shared the role of Fricka]. She opened as an imperious Juno in 'Hence, Iris, hence away' from Handel's Semele, dramatic and full of real character, and great passage-work. Then came a quieter, intense account of Ottavia's 'Disprezzata regina' from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. 'Es is vollbracht' from Bach's St John Passion was impressively sober and contained, and Barnett-Jones finished on a delightful note with a finely characterful account of Isabella's 'Cruda sorte' from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri.

Soprano Samantha Clarke won the Guildhall School of Music's Gold Medal this year.[last seen in as Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with British Youth Opera]. She opened with something which moved away from much of the repertoire of the evening, Bellini's bel canto 'O quanto volte' (Giulietta's aria) from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and it was lovely to hear the music played on the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music. Clarke clearly has a real feel for this music, a moving performance notable for the beauty of her phrasing. She followed this with an expressive account of Armida's 'molto voglio' from Handel's Rinaldo, and finished with Pamina's 'Ach ich fuhl's' from Mozart's The Magic Flute, a vibrant performance notable for Clarke's engaging personality.

Finally, we heard baritone Jerome Knox [last heard as Dandini in Rossini's La Cenerentola with British Youth Opera]. He opened with Purcell,  an engaging account of 'Wondrous Machine' from Hail Bright Cecilia. Then came Dandini's 'Come un'ape ne'giorni d'aprile' from Rossini's La Cenerentola, full of character and style with terrific patter at the end. 'Nur mutig, mein Herze' from Mozart's Zaide was stylish and full of character, then Knox finished with 'Arm, arm ye brave' from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, a highly communicative performance with fine attention to the words and great style, particularly in the accompanied recitative.

Accompanying throughout with great style, the Academy of Ancient Music were a great delight in music which ranged from Monteverdi right through to Rossini and Bellini, with the sturm und drang of Cherubini on the way!

I did not, frankly, envy the judges their job, all the finalists were of superb standard, and each brought something very special to the evening and the problem was, of course, that that something special was different for each artist. It was, in fact, a terrific concert full of vividly engaging performances.

The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - the finalists with the Judges - (Photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival International Singing Competition - the finalists with the Judges - (Photo Robert Workman)
Samantha Clarke won the Audience Prize (many people sitting round us were clearly won over by her Bellini, as were we) and was joint Second Prize with Claire Barnett-Jones, and Kiandra Howarth took first prize. Samantha Clarke also received the Academy of Ancient Music Prize (voted on by the musicians present that evening) which takes the form of an engagement with the Academy. Claire Barnett-Jones and Jerome Knox were awarded the Villa Medici Prize, a recital at the Villa Medici in Milan. All three top prize winners will be offered roles at future Grange Festival, but I am sure that we will be hearing a lot more from these singers.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • 'The first great example of British exceptionalism': Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli  (★★★★★)  - CD & Opera review
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
  • A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse - feature article
  • An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • Home

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