On the Beat

Jagde, Deonarine and Lavrov are top winners at L.A.'s Zachary Competition; the neglected Bridges of Madison County is preserved on CD.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat hdl 814
Winners' circle: Jagde, Zachary, Deonarine and Lavrov in L.A.
© Alma Guzman 2014

IN MAY, I traveled to L.A. to attend the forty-second annual LOREN L. ZACHARY NATIONAL COMPETITION. In terms of visibility, the Zachary stands in the shadow of any number of more heavily promoted New York competitions. Founded by the late Dr. Loren L. Zachary, whose one-hundredth birthday fell on May 26, the competition is maintained by his widow, NEDRA ZACHARY, an elegant, good-humored L.A. native who unapologetically rejects computers, texting, even call waiting. She's sort of like a strict but benevolent teacher whom you remember with affection. After spending only a few minutes with her, you can tell that she executes everything with the same pinpoint precision with which she signs her name. Along with her companion, South African-born jazz pianist PETER HUBNER, Zachary keeps a close watch over her foundation, coaxing financial gifts from a wide range of Southern California arts patrons. (In terms of award money, the largest contribution from an individual in 2014 was $3,500.) The Zachary Competition is looking for prêt-a-porter singers — those capable of walking out on any international stage the minute they are declared winners. 

This year, the Zachary's Grand Finals concert was held on May 18 at the 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre, an intimate gem that seems to belong to the world of Turner Classic Movies. (In fact, there was a golden-age movie actress, BARBARA RUSH, in the audience.) Before the concert began, I was struck by the number of German-speakers milling around me, a reminder of L.A.'s rich history of Austrian and German artist émigrés. The afternoon's host, JOSEPH GIVENS, appeared, and the concert began, under the musical direction of FRANK FETTA, leading the LOS ANGELES PERFORMING ARTS ORCHESTRA.

First up were soprano MARINA HARRIS, more at home with Elsa's dream, from Lohengrin, than with Marguerite's jewel song, and mezzo CASSANDRA ZOÉ VELASCO, showing off a lovely, dark sound in "Una voce poco fa." Velasco also did nicely with "Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio," from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, but she didn't quite pull off the climactic moments of either aria. She was followed by bass VALENTIN ANIKIN, whose performances of "Votre toast," from Carmen, and "Come dal ciel precipita," from Macbeth, were very suuuuunnnnng and not at all lived-in. Then came soprano KIRI DEONARINE, who exhibited spot-on technique and a persuasive point of view in both Lakmé's bell song and "Regnava nel silenzio." Tenor VLADIMIR DMITRUK was excellent in both Lenski's aria and I Lombardi's "La mia letizia infondere." 

Baritone TAKAOKI ONISHI was rock-solid in "Avant de quitter ces lieux," from Faust, and Ford's aria, from Falstaff, though he didn't come through so memorably as he has in other competitions. Tenor NOAH BAETGE gave a master class in storytelling with "La Légende de Kleinzach" and showed off a beautifully negotiated, gleaming top in "Pourquoi me réveiller." Baritone ALEXEY LAVROV brought his intense artistry to Pagliacci's "E fra quest'ansie in eterno vivrai?" and Onegin's rejection of Tatiana, while soprano SHELLEY JACKSON pulled off a good "Je suis encore," from Manon, followed by a rather faceless "Sempre libera." Ending the competition was tenor BRIAN JAGDE, who has an ideal voice for "Recondita armonia" and also produced a fine, robust sound in Ballo's "Ma se m'è forza perderti"; there's no question that his is a real opera voice, but he seems emotionally disengaged.

After a thirty-minute deliberation, the winners were announced: sixth prize (totaling $3,150) to Velasco; fifth prize ($4,500) to Jackson; fourth prize ($6,000) to Dmitruk; third prize ($8,000) to Lavrov; second prize ($10,000) to Deonarine; and first prize ($15,000) to Jagde. 

HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN the lukewarm audience and critical response to JASON ROBERT BROWN's recent Broadway musical, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which closed on May 18 after 100 performances? Now, the cast album is available on Ghostlight Records and charting on Billboard. It's a valuable memento of an unfairly dismissed show.

The Bridges of Madison County does what any decent musical based on well-known source material is supposed to do: it takes the original — ROBERT JAMES WALLER's 1992 novel — and deepens it. It's the story of the short, impassioned romance between Francesca, an Italian woman who married an Iowa farmer and came to America to build a life after World War II, and Robert, a photographer who has come to Iowa to photograph covered bridges for National Geographic. In a musical that largely revolves around thwarted dreams, Brown's score is never redundant; each song has a rich life of its own. I especially loved "Another Life" and "Get Closer," a Patsy Cline-style number that CASS MORGAN delivers wonderfully. 

KELLI O'HARA hits every nuance of Francesca's honest wit, her fatigue, her yearning. O'Hara's legit-based singing is one of the best things to be heard on Broadway right now, and the same can be said of STEVEN PASQUALE, who can pop into a superb falsetto with ease and has a fine eleven-o'clock number, "It All Fades Away." The Bridges of Madison County is a story with both power and intimacy. It's what we want from all musical drama, and what we don't get often enough. spacer 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2