May 2013

Judging YAC

May 29, 2013 12:34

The Philharmonic Society of Arlington's Young Artist Competition has been held yearly since 1965. I didn't know that back in 2008 when I joined the orchestra, or even more recently. It just seemed like, year after year, an amazing violinist--or cellist, or flautist, or singer--would show up at the rehearsals in February for the Family Concert and at one of the other concerts, and knock our collective socks off. This year, for the first time, I participated in judging the competition, known as the "YAC." It has two divisions, the Woods prize for players under 18 and the Tannenwald prize for players ages 19-30.

The competition is run by the coordinator, a horn player in the orchestra. I volunteered to assist her, and my main job was finding judges. It turns out this job is highly time-sensitive, because you have to know what kinds of applicants you have and find appropriate judges who understand their instruments. You may not have the applicant list set until about 6 weeks before, and then you have to get judges quick, before their schedules fill up. We had 5 judges for each division. In the Tannenwald division, where I was judging, I asked a German friend who is a professional soprano opera singer. We also had our choral conductor, the President of the Philharmonic society (who is a bass vocalist), a past winner of the YAC who is now a choral conductor for a local group, and me.

This year was unusual from the start, because we had 9 sopranos entering the Tannenwald division. Some years, I was told, we have no singers at all. There were also 4 violinists, a violist, a clarinet, and a countertenor. I felt good about being able to judge the violins and viola. The clarinet was covered by one of our vocal conductors who is also a woodwind player. But all those sopranos? Yes, I am a soprano, in a church choir, on good days. But still. To put it politely, I have one of those voices that blends well. I am not sure I would be able to tell the great singing from the merely good.

This year was also unusual at the end, in that the competition took place the day after the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were shot or captured in Watertown. Arlington was outside the lockdown zone, barely, but some of the contestants were coming by public transportation. We worried about what to do if they couldn't make it, when the lockdown was lifted and public transit opened, late the afternoon before.

There was one cancellation in my division, but the other 15 contestants arrived on schedule. Most were from eastern Massachusetts, but one had driven up from Pennsylvania, thinking about coming here for school, to study voice. As I mentioned, I was concerned about my ability to judge vocalists. I'm not an opera fan. I am sometimes skeptical when advised to try to make my violin sound like the human voice. I'd rather it sounded like a violin. And I tend to think that all opera singers, sopranos in particular, use too much vibrato.

But I needn't have worried. The other 4 judges knew plenty about how to evaluate singing technically, and I was pretty free to concentrate on the string players and on providing a non-insider's point of view on the vocalists. I came to appreciate classical singing much more that day, thanks to being a judge. There were songs from Candide, from Mozart, from Mendelssohn--religious, secular, and everything in between. For one singer I wrote on my score sheet, "otherworldly, I can see the moon rising." For the countertenor, I wrote "controlled strength and beauty." I think my socks were knocked off literally by the eventual first prize winner, who managed to fill the entire large church sanctuary with her power--without straining or using too much vibrato.

While I was entranced by the vocalists, I have to say that my own favorite points of the competition were the top two violinists, one who played Sibelius and came in 2nd, the other who played Vieuxtemps and tied for 3rd. The Sibelius player appeared a bit awkward and chilly until he put his violin under his chin. Then he mesmerized everyone with his beautiful tone and sure intonation. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit here that I don't know the Sibelius violin concerto very well. It's too difficult for me to play, myself, and I tend to prefer symphonies and sonatas to concertos, when I'm listening. But this was a wonderful introduction, a private performance that changed my relationship to the piece for good. And although I was in the minority of judges, I felt that the Vieuxtemps player was equally compelling, but that the piece he chose was not.

At the end, I wasn't as tired as I feared I might be. We were advised to write down something about each contestant to help remember him or her after several had gone by. My notes are full of descriptions like "bright red dress," "Joshua Bell face," "curly hair," "sweet face and voice," "bright blue shirt" and even "church lady." Sometimes I mentally stepped outside trying to listen for intonation or vibrato or phrasing and tried to just ask myself, "would our audience enjoy seeing and hearing this person perform?" I realized then that there is no one right way to present oneself, but there are some that are better than others. It's better if your dress isn't too low cut in the front, for example. But it's also better if you arrange your hair attractively and know what colors and styles bring out the best in your complexion and features. Unlike members of an orchestra or chorus, you don't want to just blend in, either.

When it came time to award prizes, there was a surprising degree of consensus in our division. We all picked our top 5 personal favorites, and were able to award the top 3 prizes without much deliberation. The discussion mainly centered around giving honorable mentions because so many of the contestants were deserving. I was a little disappointed to not give the violinist first prize, but I understood the arguments made in favor of the soprano by those who knew more than I, and came around to their point of view. I'm looking forward to hearing her in the spring. For the under-18 division winner, we have a teen cellist. After several violinists in a row, we haven't had a violinist winner for a couple of years now. Maybe next year. And I hope I'll be able to hear him or her play again, as a judge.

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