Another serve of delicious salted caramel ice-cream on Sunday night at the Sydney Eisteddfod Opera Scholarship (formerly the Sun Aria Awards) in the Concourse at Chatswood. Again, I’m not going to review the singers’ performances. Again, they were all performing at an exceptional level. Again, comparisons are odious. This time, however, I was seeing (and hearing) the contestants from the back, from my seat on the front desk of the second violins in the North Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
NSSO is a community orchestra which plays at a pretty high standard — lots of ex-music students / AYO-ers who decided to become doctors or lawyers (or writers) instead of musicians, plus a sprinkling of AOBO and SSO retirees — so while it’s not professional, we like to think we do an OK job backing the singers. It’s fun, and a good learning experience playing repertoire outside of the mainstream orchestral menu.
It’s also a great place from which to watch the competitors, and there’s always lively interest and speculation about the results in the orchestral ranks. We meet the singers a week before the final for a series of rehearsals and run-throughs, and it’s delicious to see how they transform themselves, on and off stage. A slightly sweaty looking guy in tracky-dacks suddenly turns into vengeful prince. A diminutive, mousy-haired lass turns into an exuberant strumpet. It’s magic. And then it’s the big night, and we’re on stage, with the lights blazing. The tracky-dack ensemble is gone, replaced with suit, black tie and shiny shoes. Frocks are go.
I love playing for singers. At this level of performance, grace and professionalism are givens. Yes, there can be divas, but 99% of the time it’s just their untrammelled desire to Get It Right. The music, for the orchestra, isn’t too tricky. In fact, it can be a little ho-hum — Donizetti loves a good oom-cha oom-cha beat. The real challenge is following the melody, and matching the singer’s energy and pace.
It’s also the biggest reward. That moment when 30 string players are all breathing together, all focussed on placing that one, crucial chord on the beat at exactly the moment the singer reaches his or her high note — it is, to me, the heart of what music is, why it means so much. It’s the way it can bring an entire room full of people — performers, audience — together, in a shared experience.
So… Who won? For the record, it was counter-tenor Nicholas Tolputt, who sang with ravishing tone and consistency in an aria from Handel’s Tolomeo. You’ll be hearing more about him.
And who did the orchestra vote for? Nicholas Tolputt was definitely on the short list, but we had other favourites too. Not naming any names, but there were some (very) young singers on stage who I reckon we will definitely see up there again. Maybe next time they’ll win.
Other orchestral awards include:
Best Frock — a highly competitive class, and a tie between a straight low cut black number and a well-fitting electric blue off-one-shoulder number. Special mention to an orange/purple shot silk confection which made me think of exotic macarons.
Most Scary Performance – Stephanie Gibson, who smiled beatifically, then sang ‘I am the wife of Chairman Mao’ and Der Holle Rache aka the second Queen of the Night Aria with glorious intensity
Best Accompaniment – can I please mention first horn Rafael Salgado, who duetted with Boyd Owen in Rossini’s ‘Languir per una bella’ from L’Italiana in Algeri? Plus all the repetiteurs, and especially Bradley Gilchrist nailing John Adams and Rimsky-Korsakov…
And finally, best dead pan goes to Master of Ceremonies Damian Whiteley, who not only kept the proceedings running with eloquent efficiency, but also managed to refer to photo sponsors WinkiPop Media on numerous occasions without ever collapsing into giggles.