A Classical 'American Idol'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

Of all the gifts that the Friday Morning Music Club brings to our city -- free Friday concerts downtown, performances in schools and retirement homes, an umbrella of support for musical activity throughout the area -- special mention should be made of the annual Washington International Competition.

Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the emphasis was on young adult singers (the competition also honors pianists and string players, in a three-year rotation). Six finalists, selected from 45 entries, sang mini-programs of four songs, arias or spirituals before a distinguished panel of judges and a small but intently interested audience.

Somewhat surprisingly, there wasn't a tenor or a bass in the bunch, but rather four baritones, a coloratura soprano and a mezzo. All of the artists, whose ages ranged from 23 to 30, had their strengths and weaknesses but they provided, for the most part, a charming afternoon.

The opening set was by soprano Emily Hindrichs, who studies at the New England Conservatory with James McDonald, and offered works by Ravel, Richard Strauss, Handel and Verdi. To this taste, she had the finest voice of the contestants -- firm, full, lustrous, agile and distinctive -- yet I thought she sang too loudly for such a small hall, and her coloratura passages sometimes took on the disembodied quality of vocal exercises.

Still, her personal charm, her sure sense of pitch, and her refusal to indulge in the inane birdy mimesis that so often passes for coloratura singing were strong attributes.

The other artist who especially impressed me was baritone Eugene Chan, who made himself right at home in the 500-seat Terrace -- never straining, making the most of every phrase. He was equally at home in the dark melancholy of Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," the refined grace of Fauré's "Clair de lune" and the hearty good humor of Ravel's "Chanson à boire."

Sidney Outlaw, another baritone, lacked some of Chan's subtlety but brought a palpable sense of yearning to Wagner's "Evening Star" aria from "Tannhauser" and a mixture of unbridled joy and evangelical fervor to the familiar spiritual "Git on Board." Lucia Cervoni has a pleasing light mezzo voice, sang sweetly and straightforwardly, and was especially effective in Samuel Barber's "Must the Winter Come So Soon?"

Evan Bennett sounded like a much older man; his baritone voice was curiously worn and uneven in production, although his earnest musicianship was never in doubt. And Museop Kim, the last of the baritones, has a lovely middle voice but grew tremulous and then strained over the course of his set.

The judges -- Santa Fe Opera General Director Richard Gaddes, soprano Victoria Livengood and pianist Martin Katz -- awarded the first prize of $10,000 to Chan, who also won the "Audience Favorite" award of $500 (the program booklets included ballots). Hindrichs came in second, with a prize of $4,000, and Outlaw took third place and $2,000. The Friday Morning Music Club decided to add a fourth prize of $1,500, awarded to Cervoni. Bennett and Kim each received $500.

Some honor should be reserved for the accompanists: Israel Gursky, Laura Ward, Shane Schag, Danielle DeSwert and Tamara Sanikidze, vigorous and versatile musicians all. With the exception of some of our military ensembles, the Friday Morning Music Club is the oldest musical group in Washington, founded in 1886, and its good works should be better known.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company