Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Desire dominates UWGB-hosted voice competition

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Desire dominates UWGB-hosted voice competition

International Czech-Slovak held on weekend.
International Czech-Slovak Voice Competition (Warren Gerds)
International Czech-Slovak Voice Competition (Warren Gerds)

PHOTO: The program cover for the Green Bay portion of the 12th Montreal International Czech and Slovak Voice Competition. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, WISC., (WFRV) – Young people dressed in gowns and dress suits meander individually in a hallway lost in thought, mouthing words, singing a bit, looking at a musical score and even whistling.

It’s a few minutes before the day’s final performances in an international voice competition.

The competition ends Wednesday through Friday, Oct. 2 to 4, in Montreal, Canada. On this day, Sunday, we’re on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, host to two early rounds of the competition that has brought 24 singers from around the United States and one from The Netherlands.

Everyone sang Saturday. The contestants for Sunday have been trimmed to 18. They sing in morning and afternoon shifts.

We’re at the afternoon shift, with 11 singers set to sing a French aria and a Czech-Slovak art song in the 12th Montreal International Czech and Slovak Voice Competition.

In a casual chat beforehand, local organizer and one of the judges Sarah Meredith Livingston says the field is formidable. She wonders about being able to determine a winner and chuckles about a suggestion to use a coin toss – not that the system would get down to that.

Another judge, local music man Dudley Birder, also speaks highly of the competitors. Birder says the six judges are not allowed to speak to one another about the competition. “We can talk about football, or anything but the competition,” he says. Birder says he’s grateful the judging is a shared responsibility.

Naturally, as I sit listening to the singers, I am a judge of one. My choices emerge from among the singers I hear. Since I haven’t heard all the singers, my picks don’t count a lick. But playing judge is fun.

What transpires is fascinating. This is singing in rare air of the musical atmosphere. These singers are years in the making – hour upon hour of studying, practicing, perfecting, sometimes performing in public, building block after block of knowledge and experience with a goal of establishing a professional career and savoring the accolades of crowds after a performance in a glorious performance hall.

These singers are collegiate level, graduate level and professional level.

What I like about the experience is purity.

There is no microphone. The singer’s voice is unamplified – au natural, so to speak.

There are no special effects, no lighting or other gadgets. Expression and gesture are allowed to show the character in the song.

Once a singer starts, there’s no going back. Whatever note is sung – good, bad, ugly, glorious, big, small, colorful or colorless – is what it is.

It all adds up to Stand and Deliver.

The place is Fort Howard Hall, one of three theaters in the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at UWGB. The seating area (red cushioned seats) slopes upward at about 30 degrees. The rectangular performance area is a hardwood floor with a grand piano at the center. The moon and large stars are projected on the rear and side walls of the hall, visually enhancing the acoustical elements.

A door to the audience’s left opens, and a young woman enters to announce the person performing. The singer enters, along with accompanist Timothy Cheek, and a young woman who turns the pages of scores for him when Cheek nods to do so. (Cheek tells me afterward he’s been thick into Czech and Slovak music since the early 1990s. This is his sixth time to Green Bay for this leg of the competition. Playing a huge variety of music set before him, sometimes with little more than a glance beforehand, “is what I do.” He said that with a twinkle in his eye, radiating a sense of joy. Cheek has played for almost all of the soloists for two days.)

Everybody is announced by name and place they wish to be identified with. The program lists one singer as being from Ypsilanti, Mich., where Eastern Michigan University is located, but he wants everyone to know he hails from Sioux Falls, S.D. Another singer is listed as being from Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the University of Michigan, but he tells the audience he is from Albany, N.Y.

Each singer settles in at the crook of the piano, the smooth curve. The spot seems to be a comfort zone for all.

Talk about being in a fish bowl. Each singer’s look, demeanor and presence are scrutinized – and a note has yet to be sung.

Each singer sings two selections, usually two to three minutes long. I do not understand a single word. Skill with the languages sung is a factor in the judging. Translation: I’d be worthless as a judge.

No two singers sound alike. Aside from different selections being sung, the voices have different qualities – timber, color, fullness.

At times, I look at a body type or estimate an age and think, “Wow, where did that sound come from?”

Some singers I envision in roles in an opera or performing on a concert stage.

Some singers make mistakes – nothing blatant but a tiny miss in clarity or a wisp of a rasp – and continue on unflinchingly.

Sitting in on this international competition is like watching the figure skating finals in Olympics and estimating where the judges will deduct points in the vocal loop-to-loops, gliding, whirls, finesse, bravado and dynamics. In this case, you know you don’t know better than the judges.

This being a competition, the goal is to win. Prizes are $5,000 (in Canadian dollars) for first and $2,500 for second. Winners will be determined by Friday, Oct. 4, in Montreal.

Fortunately in the arts, winning isn’t everything, even in this town where Vince Lombardi earned everlasting fame for football coaching and quotes (or misquotes). Many of the competitors will find success. You can just tell it from the room full of desire and skill unleashed over the weekend.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

Page: [[$index + 1]]