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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

UNISA VOICE COMPETITION WINNERS (article first published : 2006-02-5)

The Vodacom-sponsored 5th Unisa International Voice Competition took place from January 23 to February 4 in the impressive Z K Matthews Great Hall at Unisa in Pretoria. Some 33 young singers from 16 countries were selected to participate in this competition, which is the only one in Africa to be recognised by the World Federation of International Music Competitions. The finals, which took place over the last two days, featured six excellent singers among them being South Africans Bronwen Forbay and Amanda Echalaz.

Born and educated in Durban where she graduated from the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), Bronwen Forbay is now studying at the University of Cincinnati in the US. As one of the top prize -winners at last year’s national competition, she was automatically eligible to appear in this year’s international event.

Amanda Echalaz was born and grew up in Durban, which is still her home. Now working in the UK, she is currently appearing as Jenufa in the English Touring Opera Company’s production of Jenufa before taking the title role in Opera Holland Park’s Manon Lescaut.

The cash money offered in this prestigious competition equals R712,000 including special prizes totalling R82,000. Except for the First Prize (concert), which is sponsored by the Rupert Musiekstigting, all other main prizes were sponsored by Vodacom (Pty) Ltd. Six prizes of R2,000 each were donated by a number of sponsors and awarded to accompanists whose competitors reached the final round. Among these was Durban’s Andrew Warburton who took over at very short notice to accompany Amanda Echalaz. Special mention should be made of Evgenia Grekova’s pianist Irina Puryshinskaja who accompanied Evgenia as closely if she was her second skin.

The first prize in the 5th Unisa International Voice Competition was won by Ji-Hyun Park (32) of the Republic of Korea. Apart from the R150,000 cash prize sponsored by Vodacom, the Unisa Music Foundation will arrange a concert tour of South Africa for her and this will undoubtedly visit Durban. Ms Park also won the audience prize of R5,000 and the James Verwey Memorial Prize of R5,000 donated by Mattie Verwey for the best performance of an Aria selected from the works by Bellini, Boito, Donizetti, Leoncavello, Mascagni, Puccini, Rossini or Verdi performed in Opera Category Round 3. The top age limit of the competition is 32 and this diminutive but dynamic singer displayed the value of the extra years of experience separating her from her colleagues. She held the audience spellbound during her performance, particularly in Gualtier Maldè – Caro Nome from Rigoletto and we all seemed to hold our breath as she placed each note impeccably and with exquisite clarity.

Runner-up was 24-year old Anna Kasyan of Georgia, who received R120,000 as well as The Desmond Willson Memorial Prize of R5,000 donated by the late Desmond Willson for the best performance of an Oratorio Aria in Opera Category Round 2 and the W A Mozart Prize of R5,000 donated by the Embassy of Austria in Pretoria for the best performance of a work by W A Mozart in the Opera Category. She also won The James Verwey Memorial Prize of R5,000 donated by Mattie Verwey for the best performance of a short vocal composition from the 16th, 17th or 18th century in Opera Category Round 1. This young singer proved to have considerable dramatic talents and she drew on humour where appropriate. The compelling interpretation of her arias will bring a stunning energy to any opera role in the future.

In third position – a real coup for South Africa … and for Durban – was Bronwen Forbay (28) who received R90,000. She also won the SAMRO Prize of R10,000 donated by the Southern African Music Rights Organisation for the most promising South African competitor in the Opera Category. Resplendent in striking red and looking the perfect diva, she impressed with her stage presence and dramatic highly focused presentation. Despite the fact that she was still getting over flu, her clear resounding voice rang through the hall and soared into the roof structure, her infectious and apparent joy of singing transferring to her audience.

Initially appearing stiff and nervous, Arsen Soghomonyan (22) of Armenia was fourth with R70,000. The youngest finalist, he warmed as he progressed and the audience response was indicative of the high quality of his singing. At the close of his performance, he endeared himself to one and all by placing his bouquet of flowers at the feet of the leader of the orchestra, concertmaster Denise Sutton.

Amanda Echalaz (29) of South Africa, who came fifth with R50,000, impressed me considerably with her commanding yet serene and elegant stage presence. This was a performance of maturity and, of all the contestants who sang with the full orchestra, she was best able to handle the extra vocal power required.

The jury decided not to award the First Prize in the Concert Category sponsored by the Rupert Musiekstigting but to award a third prize of R90,000 in this category to Evgenia Grekova (31) from Russia. Evgenia also won two Desmond Willson Memorial Prizes - one of R5,000 for the best performance of an Oratorio Aria in the Concert Category Round 2 and one of R10,000 for the best performance of a Song Cycle in the Concert Category Round 3. She was also presented with the W A Mozart Prize of R5,000 donated by Professor Hubert van der Spuy for the best performance of a work by W A Mozart in the Concert Category.

The James Verwey Memorial Prize of R5,000 for the best performance of a short vocal composition from the 16th, 17th or 18th century in the Concert Category Round 1 was awarded to Erica Eloff of South Africa. She also received The SAMRO Prize of R10,000 donated by the Southern African Music Rights Organisation for the most promising South African competitor in the Concert Category.

It was good to see KZN Philharmonic violinists Melale Manthu and Brian Khumalo performing in the Chamber Orchestra of South Africa. No stranger to Durban audiences from his appearances with the KZNPO, conductor Arjan Tien impressed with his encouragement and sympathetic handling of the six singers. At the close of the evening, it was announced that the International Piano Competition would take place in 2008, to be preceded by the national event in 2007 in January/February. Make a date in your diaries now!

All congratulations are due to Unisa and Vodacom as well as to the performers for bringing their own individual talents to bear in this splendid competition. – Caroline Smart

The only cause of irritation in 48 hours of glorious song happened last night at Café 41 in Groenkloof. My hosts had taken the trouble to drive there in the morning to book a particular table and warn them that we would be under pressure in terms of time. However, when we arrived in the evening, the manager told us that it was impossible to book tables less than two hours beforehand. His nonchalant and unhelpful attitude would normally have seen us leaving in search of a more co-operative venue. Suffice it to say that we stayed and the meal was good with the excellent and attentive service by Sibusiso easing our irritation. However, as it was sufficiently exasperating for me to write about the incident on the worldwide network, Café 41 should take greater care in future.




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