La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Centre Stage: 2014 COC Ensemble Competition Crowns New Winners

Centre Stage: COC Ensemble Competition Crowns New Winners (Review)

Joseph So

COC Ensemble Competition Program Cover


Michelle Siemens, mezzo / "All'afflitto e dolce il pianto" (Roberto Devereux) / "Voi che sapete" (Nozze di Figaro)

Nathan Keoughan, bass-baritone / "La calunnia" (Il barbiere) / "Se vuol ballare" (Nozze)

Zoe Band, mezzo / "Parto, parto" (Tito) / "Must the winter come so soon? (Vanessa)

Charles Sy, tenor / "Dies Bildnis" (Zauberfloete) / Una furtiva larima (L'Elisir d'amore)

Dimitri Katotakis, baritone / "Hai gia vinta la causa" (Nozze) / "Mag, la reine des mensonges" (Romeo et Juliette)

Aaron Sheppard, tenor / "Vainement, ma bien aimee" (Le roi d'Y's) / "Un'aura amorosa" (Cosi)

Eliza Johnson, soprano / "Padre, germani, addio" (Tito) / Juliette's Waltz (Romeo et Juliette)

Jury Panel: Alexander Neef, General Director / Roberto Mauro, Artistic Administrator / Sandra Gavinchuk, Music Administrator / Liz Upchurch, Head of COC Ensemble Studio / Wendy Nielsen, Ensemble Studio Alumna, soprano and teacher

COC Orchestra
Johannes Debus, conductor

Four Seasons Centre, November 25th 2014

One of the joys of being an opera lover is discovering voices of tomorrow, identifying young artists with the potential of greatness. Often the best place to find these vocal gems is in the competition arena.  Many singers have gotten a jump start to their careers through winning important competitions. There's also something about a contest that excites the senses and makes one sit up and take notice. I've been attending competitions for almost fifty years, and it still captures my imagination every time.  One gets to hear promising young artists with solid training and beautiful instruments, ready, willing and able to strive for a career in music. 

There are relatively few singing competitions in Canada - I can only think of the Montreal International Music Competition where the voice edition rotates with piano and violin. The Eckhardt-Gramatte Competition in Brandon, Manitoba also has a voice component in addition to violin and cello. The Mozart Competition that used to take place in Toronto back in the 80's under the sponsorship of the late Peter Sandor is no more with the passing of Mr. Sandor. Currently, there's the annual Christina and Louis Quilico Competition for the COC Ensemble Studio singers, to take place later this year.  Centre Stage is relatively new as competitions go. Through an auditioning process in several cities in Canada and in New York, aspiring singers are invited to compete on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, with cash prizes as well as the possibility of becoming a member of the COC Ensemble Studio. In three short years, it has blossomed into a major event, with a fund-raising gala component. The last two competitions had some major voices the likes of soprano Karine Boucher, tenor Andrew Haji, baritone Gordon Bintner, and mezzo Charlotte Burrage, all are now valuable members of the Ensemble Studio roster as a result of their strong performances. This year, seven finalists hope to do the same.  

Tenor Charles Sy (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The attendance has grown substantially since moving from the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre to the mainstage of the Four Seasons, with full orchestra under the direction of COC Music Director Johannes Debus. For a cool $1500, one gets to have a gourmet dinner on the stage of the opera house after the conclusion of the event. The tariff for the competition itself including a pre-performance reception is a more modest $100 per ticket. Given the gala component, the Four Seasons lobby last evening took on a festive atmosphere, where well dressed audience members sampled the fancy cheeses and the assortment of drinks. But of course the main event was the competition itself. Unlike last year when there was a private session where the finalists sang in front of the jury panel without a public audience, this year all of it was open to the public.  

Tenor Aaron Sheppard (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The event started a few minutes after 6:30 pm, with Canadian tenor Ben Heppner as the MC. After a few brief comments by him and General Director Alexander Neef, the competition started in earnest with Victoria BC native mezzo-soprano Michelle Siemens. In Sara's aria from Roberto Devereux, Siemens showed off an impressively big, rich, resonant voice. This aria represents Donizetti at his best, and Siemens sang this short aria with its Bellini-like cantilena very well, if without much chiaroscuro. If I were to quibble, she used repeated and generalized hand gestures throughout. A more thought out, judicious use of hand and facial expressions to truly illuminate the text would have been better. Still, I feel it's an aria that showed off her strength. Her second piece, "Voi che sapete" was not so suited to her, as I don't really see her as a convincing Cherubino.  She sang it rather blandly, without much variation in expression vocally or dramatically. That said, Siemens has a quality "true" mezzo voice that's well worth hearing.  
Baritone Dimitri Katotakis (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Next up was PEI baritone Nathan Keoughan. If memory serves, he sang at the FSC last year.  Both La calunnia and Se vuoi ballare showed off his sturdy baritone to advantage. He sang with quite nice expression and looked good on stage.  I was unfamiliar with the voice of Toronto mezzo Zoe Band, so it was a pleasure to hear her high mezzo. Sesto's aria, Parto, parto, is one of the most challenging in her voice category.  She sang with a beautiful timbre, very nice legato, excellent sense of pitch, a fast but unobtrusive vibrato, and overall she did very well in this piece. A fly in the ointment was the less than sparkling coloratura with some smudged attacks in the presto section near the end of the long aria.  A very nice and highly promising voice that is a work in progress.  Another issue is the rather compact size of her instrument, perhaps a bit small given the size of the opera houses today. But with time it may likely grow in strength and volume. Erika's "Must the Winter Come So Soon?" is a very beautiful aria and often sung in competitions, something that I've always found a little curious, as it's not exactly a showy piece. I would have preferred something like the Composer's Aria from Ariadne. To be sure, Zoe Band's is a voice to watch.        

The finalists with master of ceremonies tenor Ben Heppner (Photo: Michael Cooper)

For those of us who attend U of T Faculty of Music presentations, tenor Charles Sy is a familiar presence. Over the last two or three years, his development has been amazing. Most recently I heard him sing in the Ben Heppner masterclass and he acquitted himself beautifully.  Tonight, he sang two pieces that served his predecessor, fellow U of T tenor Andrew Haji well two years ago and in the recent competition in Holland - Dies Bildnis and Una furtiva lagrima.  Sy sang with lovely, warm tone that was a pleasure to the ear.  He offered perfect expression and a surfeit of elegance in both arias, and negotiated the treacherous final minute of Nemorino's aria beautifully. An excellent performance.

Conductor Johannes Debus applauds the finalists (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Baritone Dimitri Katotakis followed with the Count's aria from Nozze, singing with ingratiating tone and nice stage presence. His high register was impressive, and he sang a very strong high note at the end. A very interesting voice, one that almost make me want to say he is a tenor, not a true baritone, or perhaps a baryton martin?  In any case, I would be really curious to hear him as Pelleas.  Next up was Newfoundland tenor Aaron Sheppard in the beautiful aria from Le roi d'Y's, a piece that served tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure so well last year in the competition. Sheppard had a bit of a tentative start with minor pitch issues, but he recovered quickly and sang with beautiful mezza voce and lovely piano notes where it counted. Perhaps it's a bit of nervous tension, I detected some flatness here and there, but over all, it was a very nice performance, executed with poise.  The final competitor was Stratford native soprano Eliza Johnson. The Ilia's aria and Juliette's Waltz are both well suited to her lyric soprano.   Nice tone, albeit with some excess flutter. I also detected some pitch issues here and a general rushing of tempo perhaps due to nerves.  A firmer, more defined trill would serve her well, as it's very important in Juliette's aria. 

With the jury went off to deliberate, the surprise guest came on to - as Ben Heppner quipped - "show how it's done!"   It was none other than Adrianne Pieczonka, who sang three pieces, Wally's aria "Ebben, ne andro lontana," "Pace, pace" and the Strauss Lied "Zueignung."  And she indeed showed how it's done!  What gorgeous, big voiced singing.  Perhaps it's unfair to say that one can hear a real difference between the contestants and Pieczonka, but that's calling a spade a spade.  Here you have a world class singer at the height of her powers - of course she's better!  But you know what?  All the contestants can aspire to reach that level, and who knows, perhaps some of them will. 

After a short deliberation of about 15 minutes, Alexander Neef came on to announce the winners - tenor Charles Sy won First Prize of $5000 and the Audience Prize; baritone Dmitri Katotakis won Second Prize of $3000, and tenor Aaron Sheppard was Third with $1500.  Congratulations to the winners and all the contestants for a job well done!  I wish them all the best in their pursuit of a career, and offer them the following words from the sublime trio "Soave sia il vento" from Cosi fan tutte -

Soave sia il vento
Tranquilla sia l'onda
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai nostri desir     

(l. to r.) Aaron Sheppard, Dmitri Katotakis, Alexander Neef, Charles Sy (Photo: Michael Cooper)

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Monday, 24 November 2014

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 24 - 30)

My Toronto Concert Picks for the week of Nov. 24 to 30  - Joseph So 

Conductor Andrey Boreyko (Photo: Christoph Rattger)

At the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week, Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko makes a welcome return to conduct an interesting program of Stravinsky - Petrouchka and Pulcinella - juxtaposed with the classical Haydn. Guest soloist is Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter. Since she burst onto the scene winning second prize - to Yundi Li's first - at the 2000 Warsaw Competition, she has built an enviable career on the stages of the major concert halls of the world. If you missed her appearance here last season, here's your chance. To prepare for this week's blog, I visited her website and to my pleasant surprise, I discovered the collection of her paintings that are well worth checking out.  Performances on Nov. 26 and 27 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. 

Pianist Ingrid Fliter (Photo:

For those of you with a taste for the unusual and the eclectic in classical music - especially Second City fans! - the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting the Second City Guide to the Symphony on Nov. 28 and 30.  It promises to be, uh, different, and entertaining for sure. I had to laugh when I saw this statement in bold print on the TSO website - "This presentation includes adult language and situations and is intended for mature audiences."  I think in 2014, even the most sheltered classical music lover wouldn't be shocked by the comedic antics of Second City. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts.

Poster for The Second City Guide to the Symphony (Photo:

A frequent guest of Music Toronto, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski is making a welcome return this season for a recital on Tuesday Nov. 25 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, in a program of Schubert, Brahms, Ravel and Poulenc. For more information on this terrific pianist whom I've had the pleasure of hearing several times in recent years, go to   For more information on his Toronto recital, go to

Pianist Simon Trpceski (Photo: Music Toronto)

The Canadian Opera Company is in hiatus at the moment, but that doesn't mean there's no fine singing to be had.  Here's CentreStage: the Second Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition.  It is advertised as a competition and a gala event, where for a cool $1500 you can have a gourmet dining experience on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre!  I do believe the gala dinner part of it is all sold out, but there might be tickets still available for the public competition. Do visit their website for details.  Retired Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is the MC.  Long time opera fans will know that Heppner burst onto the scene after winning the 1988 Metropolitan Opera Auditions as well as the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Competitions are a great way to get noticed, and in this case, it may lead to a spot on the COC Ensemble Studio roster. There are seven finalists this year, and I am familiar with the voices of only two of them. They are soprano Eliza Johnson, mezzos Michelle Siemens and Zoe Band, tenors Aaron Sheppard and Charles Sy, and baritone Dimitri Katotakis and bass-baritone Nathan Keoughan. They will be accompanied by the full COC Orchestra under  the direction of COC Music Director Johannes Debus. I look forward to hearing them tomorrow!

The University of Toronto Faculty of Music (Opera Division) puts on fully staged productions to showcase it talented students every year, and this year it's HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan. Hard to believe but this is the first time in 25 years that a G&S work has been staged by the Faculty. Four performances Nov. 27 to 30 at the MacMillan Theatre on the campus of University of Toronto. Michael Patrick Albano directs and Sandra Horst conducts.

HMS Pinafore at University of Toronto 

Leon Fleisher, pianist and pedagogue, has been a vital force in the training of the next generation of musicians at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He holds the Ihnatowycz Chair in Piano at the RCM. On Friday Nov. 28 8 pm at Koerner Hall, he is the guest conductor with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra  in a program of Mozart, Brahms and William Walton.

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Cette semaine à Montréal : le 24 au 30 novembre

La soprano Marie-Ève Munger

Le Festival Bach Montréal – du 23 novembre au 7 décembre
La 8e édition du Festival Bach de Montréal présentera 21 spectacles dans neuf salles. Dans la foisonnante programmation, mentionnons en novembre :
• le quintette à vent Pentaèdre et le pianiste Mathieu Gaudet, qui interpréteront en primeur l'Hommage à Bach du compositeur Éric Champagne (24);
• le Concerto Melante, formé de membres de l'Orchestre Philharmonique de Berlin, qui interprétera l'Offrande musicale de Bach (27);
• l'Orchestre baroque Arion, en formation de quatuor, dans l'ambiance de la salle de musique du prince Frédéric (28);
• I Musici di Roma, orchestre baroque de grande réputation, fondé en 1951, qui nous réserve une surprise inattendue (30).
- Renée Banville

Les découvertes chorales de Voces Boreales
Sous la direction artistique de Michael Zaugg, l’ensemble choral Voces Boreales fait découvrir au public des œuvres a capella de compositeurs nord-américains, scandinaves ou originaires des Balkans. Au programme de ce concert dirigé exceptionnellement par le chef invité Andrew Gray, des œuvres de Thomas Jennefelt, Aaron Copland, Carl Rütti, Antonín Tučapský, Bob Chilcott, James McMillan, Z. Randall Stroope et Francis Poulenc. Avec la participation de la soliste Meagan Zantingh, mezzo-soprano. En collaboration avec l’Institut choral de Montréal. Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours – 25 novembre, 19 h 30.
- Justin Bernard

Quatuor Quasar au Chapelle Historique
Le Quatuor Quasar prépare une soirée pleine de surprises pour souligner le 20e anniversaire de sa fondation. 27 novembre, 20 h.
- Renée Banville

Concert en hommage à Franz-Paul Decker
L'Orchestre symphonique de McGill, sous la direction d'Alexis Hauser, présente un concert en hommage à Franz-Paul Decker. Au programme : des œuvres de Richard Strauss, dont on célèbre cette année le 150e anniversaire de naissance. Avec Jane Archibald, soprano. Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, 29 novembre, 19 h 30.
- Renée Banville

L’intégrale des cantates de Bach se poursuit à la Salle Bourgie
La Fondation Arte Musica poursuit son intégrale des cantates de Bach en ce mois de novembre. La soprano Aline Kutan, la mezzo Julie Boulianne et le ténor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, accompagnés par le chœur et ensemble instrumental dirigé par Luc Beauséjour, interpréteront trois cantates du cantor de Leipzig : Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, Was frag’ ich nach der Welt, BWV 94, et Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133. Salle Bourgie du Musée des Beaux-Arts – 30 novembre, à 14 h
- Justin Bernard

Marie-Ève Munger à la Société d’art vocal
La Société d’art vocal recevra la soprano Marie-Ève Munger, accompagnée au piano par Louise-Andrée Baril, pour son deuxième récital de la saison. Au programme, des airs et mélodies pour colorature de Beydts, Debussy et Milhaud. Salle du Conservatoire de musique de Montréal – 30 novembre, à 15 h.
- Justin Bernard

Ladies' Morning Musical Club – débuts en novembre
Solistes et chambristes accomplis, Jon Kimura Parker, Martin Beaver et Clive Greensmith unissent leurs forces pour offrir au public un nouveau trio captivant : le Trio Montrose. Jon Kimura Parker est un vétéran de la scène internationale. Martin Beaver et Clive Greensmith étaient tous deux membres du prestigieux Tokyo String Quartet. Débuts au LMMC dans cette formation. Salle Pollack, 30 novembre, 15 h 30.
- Renée Banville

Les adieux d’Iwan Edwards
Le dimanche 30 novembre, Concerto Della Donna présente son dernier concert, intitulé Encore une fois, une célébration et un hommage au chef bien-aimé, avec la collaboration d’anciens choristes et de musiciens invités. Le maestro est particulièrement enthousiasmé par le Magnificat de la jeune compositrice Christine Donkin. « L’ambiance sonore dans ce morceau est magnifique, fait-il remarquer. Sa musique est fondamentalement tonale, mais elle produit un effet unique. » Il mentionne également la compositrice Marie-Claire Saindon, aussi membre de CDD.
Avec le départ de son chef, c’est aussi le dernier concert de CDD. « Il renaîtra [malgré cela] de ses cendres comme un phénix sous une nouvelle appellation et sera un nouveau type d’ensemble. Elles ont beaucoup d’affinités et sont très fières de l’image projetée par CDD. »
- Kristine Berey

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This Week in Montreal: November 24 to 30

Soprano Marie-Ève Munger

The Montreal Bach Festival: Nov 23 to Dec 7
The 8th edition of the Montreal Bach Festival presents 21 concerts in nine venues. Among the abundance of events planned, here are some noteworthy ones in November:
• The Pentaèdre wind quartet and pianist Mathieu Gaudet premiere composer Éric Champagne’s Hommage à Bach (24)
• The Concerto Melante, composed of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, perform Bach’s The Musical Offering (27)
• Arion Baroque Orchestra recreates the ambience of Prince Frederick of Prussia’s music room for a performance as a quartet (28)
• I Musici di Roma, a renowned baroque orchestra founded in 1951, has a surprise in store … (30)
- Renée Banville

Choral Discoveries with Voces Boreales
Under the artistic direction of Michael Zaugg, choral ensemble Voces Boreales will introduce audiences to a capella works by North American, Scandinavian, and Balkan composers. Featured in this concert directed by guest conductor Andrew Gray are works by Thomas Jennefelt, Aaron Copland, Carl Rütti, Antonín Tučapský, Bob Chilcott, James McMillan, Z. Randall Stroope and Francis Poulenc. With mezzo-soprano Meagan Zantingh and in collaboration with the Montreal Choral Institute. Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Nov 25 at 7:30 pm.
- Justin Bernard

Chapelle historique: Quasar Quartet
The Quasar Quartet has prepared a number of surprises for its 20th anniversary program. Nov 27, 8 pm.
- Renée Banville

A Concert in Honour of Franz-Paul Decker
The McGill Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexis Hauser, presents a concert in tribute to Franz-Paul Decker. The program includes works by Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated. With soprano Jane Archibald at Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Nov 29, 7:30 pm.
- Renée Banville

The Complete Bach Cantatas Continue at Bourgie Hall
The Arte Musica Foundation continues its presentation of Bach cantatas this Nov. Soprano Aline Kutan, mezzo Julie Boulianne, and tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, accompanied by a choir and instrumental ensemble conducted by Luc Beauséjour, perform three cantatas by the Cantor of Leipzig:
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, Was frag’ ich nach der Welt, BWV 94, and Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133. Bourgie Hall, Nov 30, at 2 pm.
- Justin Bernard

Marie-Ève Munger at the Société d’art vocal
The Sociétét d’art vocal hosts soprano Marie-Ève Munger, accompanied on the piano by Louise-Andrée Baril, for her second recital of the season. On the program are arias and melodies for coloratura by Beydts, Debussy, and Milhaud. Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, Nov 30 at 3 pm.
 - Justin Bernard

Ladies’ Morning Musical Club: November Debuts
Jon Kimura Parker, Martin Beaver, and Clive Greensmith, all successful soloists and chamber musicians, come together to offer the public a new and captivating trio called the Montrose Trio. Jon Kimura Parker is a veteran of the international scene. Martin Beaver and Clive Greensmith were both members of the prestigious Tokyo String Quartet. Debut with LMMC. Pollack Hall, Nov 30, 3:30 pm.
- Renée Banville
Iwan Edwards’ Farewells
On Sunday, November 30, Concerto Della Donna performs its final concert entitled “Once and for All”, a celebration and tribute to their beloved conductor that will feature alumni and guest musicians. Edwards is particularly excited about young composer Christine Donkin’s Magnificat. “The soundscape she creates in that piece is just unbelievable,” he notes, mentioning CDD member and composer Marie-Claire Saindon as well. “Her music is basically tonal but has a sound that’s completely different.”
Although this is CDD’s final concert, coinciding with Edwards’ retirement, he says “The CDD will cease to exist but the group will rise like a phoenix under a new name, and they will make a new kind of ensemble. There is a very strong affinity between them and they realize that CDD has an image of which they are very proud.”
- Kristine Berey

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