There is something invigorating in the knowledge that a city takes care of its musical life. Strolling about in the streets of Montreal, one can’t help but notice the profusion of posters and billboards calling attention to upcoming music festivals, much-awaited concerts and niche live music events. As spring takes over, Montreal swarms with life and art, music holding a crucial role in this blossoming picture. In fact, it was to have a good taste of such an animated atmosphere that I travelled to the city at the beginning of June, on the occasion of the 20th edition of the Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM).

The finalists of the art song division
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Founded in 2001 by philanthropist André Bourbeau and bass Joseph Rouleau, the CMIM has since then taken place regularly, rotating each year between the three divisions of voice, violin and piano and featuring top-tier international juries. Its annual frequency and strong appeal to emerging artists and audiences alike have established the CMIM as one of the most sought-after music competitions in North America and beyond. But it’s not all about the competition either. Over their ten-day stay in Montreal, the participants get the chance to attend masterclasses from renowned experts in their field, perform with other talented musicians – including the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, the competition’s own official orchestra – and enjoy the city’s vivacious cultural scene.

Finally returning to its intended concert halls after the shutdown, this year’s edition was dedicated to voice, itself split in two divisions: art song and aria. Among the many young singers who applied, thirty-two competitors were selected, two of them taking part in both divisions. 

Unsurprisingly, numerous applications came from within Canada. Such was the case for soprano Sarah Dufresne and mezzo Simone McIntosh, both finalists in the aria division and winners of the second and first prize, respectively. But even with its Canadian roots the scope of the competition is distinctively international, as is made clear by German mezzo Valerie Eickhoff, winner of the third prize of the aria division. “I remember coming across the CMIM on YouTube and thinking what a great opportunity it could be,” she told me. “I eventually decided to apply – and here I am now!” she laughed. Its widespread fame allows the competition to reach well outside North America, with sixteen different countries being represented in this edition alone.

Valerie Eickhoff, third prize winner in the aria division
© Tam Photography | CMIM

On the jurors’ side, the process of selection is stimulating but demanding all the same – and not just because of the competitors’ genuine talent. Chaired by Zarin Mehta, this year’s jury comprised eight experts of diverse backgrounds, including Sir Thomas Allen, Hartmut Höll, Adrianne Pieczonka and Christine Schäfer – each of them also leading a masterclass within the context of the CMIM. Predictably, unanimity in judgement is not always a given. Yet such plurality assures a careful evaluation, where everyone weighs in from their personal perspective and contributes to formulate a balanced verdict. Indeed, it was with curiosity, interest and delight that I followed the process, comparing my own impressions to the decisions of the jury.

Officially starting on 31st May, the competition unfolded in three rounds, progressively narrowing the number of participants. Each round had its own set of rules, which dictated the length and content of the programmes, specifically their language requirements. After the first series of performances, the art song semi-final began: out of six competitors, three were singled out by the jury for the final. It is at this point that my first-hand report begins.

Having arrived in Montreal on June 4 and allowed myself some time to rest out a mild jet lag, the following day I attended my first CMIM concert – the art song final – in the beautiful Salle Bourgie, attached to the Musée des beaux-arts. Taking turns on stage, the three competitors together with their pianists each performed a 35-minute programme featuring works in at least three different languages. It is not an overstatement to say that these young artists were not only promising, but already fully capable of holding the stage.

Art song third prize winner Bryan Murray, with pianist Olivier Godin
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Opening the concert was American baritone Bryan Murray, accompanied by pianist Olivier Godin. Competing in both divisions of the competition, which awarded him the third place among the art song laureates, Murray’s pièces de résistance seemed to be Mahler’s Lieder, particularly a beautifully executed selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Murray’s ability to smother his voice down to a pianissimo and still have it resonate in the concert hall was remarkable.

Stepping on stage after him, British soprano Harriet Burns and pianist Ian Tindale performed a most diverse programme including works by Haydn, Hoiby, Stenhammar, Schubert, MacMillan and Dvořák. The two, who recently gave a recital tour in the Netherlands, displayed great versatility while maintaining a distinctive sound. Burns’ clear harmonics stood out in MacMillan’s Ballad, producing a mesmerising effect. Her second prize was well-deserved.

Art song second prize winner Harriet Burns with pianist Ian Tindale
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Both based in New York, American soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth and South Korean pianist Jinhee Park have been collaborating as a duo for about a year. On stage they exhibited formidable chemistry: throughout their performance they vibrated together, Wohlgemuth’s warm tone and Park’s impassioned yet collected piano playing. The soprano’s fine musicality and sense for phrasing didn’t go unnoticed, securing her the first prize and the generous Joseph Rouleau Career Development Grant. “For me, the CMIM is not just a competition but also an occasion to pay homage to the composers whose music my pianist and I love to play,” she explained to me. “The German repertoire, as well as contemporary American music. It was a pleasure and an honour to share that with the audience.”

Art song first prize winner Meredith Wohlgemuth with pianist Jinhee Park
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Well into its most ebullient phase, the competition entered its last few days, dedicated to the aria division. Excitement was tangible in the new venue, the Maison Symphonique, and two new protagonists came into the spotlight: the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and its guest conductor Jacques Lacombe. Throughout the semi-final and final, the audience became acquainted with Lacombe’s attentive conducting and his firm yet delicate grip on the orchestra. After some thrilling semi-final rounds, five out of the ten singers were chosen to move on to the next and final one, where every competitor was given fourteen to eighteen minutes to perform three arias in at least two different languages. The evening proceeded with unswerving rapidity, demonstrating the competitors’ familiarity with a wide-ranging repertoire.

Following the customary introduction – an orchestral overture, in this case the sinfonia from Rossini’s Barbiere – the first to walk up on stage was mezzo Valerie Eickhoff. Her programme reflected an unmasked passion for Mozart (“Deh, per questo istante solo”) and Rossini (“Una voce poco fa”), her Rosina combining spotless coloratura with delicious mischievousness. Eickhoff has recently signed a contract with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, thus becoming a regular – and welcome – presence in their theatres.

Boldness and sensitivity found a common ground in German countertenor Nils Wanderer, whose all-Baroque performance at the semi-final earned him a rightful place in the last round. Testing his ease with more modern repertoire, Wanderer gave a poignant rendition of Elgar’s Sea Slumber Song. The countertenor’s leaps between extreme registers were carried out with impressive agility, which secured him the People’s Choice Award.

Simone McIntosh, first prize winner in the aria division
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Certainly, fearless versatility and charisma seem to be Simone McIntosh’s trademark. As mentioned, the mezzo-soprano was awarded the first prize and met with roaring applause from the audience – and it’s not hard to understand why. Her voice promptly adapted to each piece, retaining its full, pleasant tone in both Strauss’ lyrical stirrings and Rossini’s challenging coloratura. “I love singing Mozart and Handel, but I also enjoy probing 20th- and 21st-century music,” she told me. “Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen, as well as contemporary composers. I feel drawn to that repertoire”.

As juror Adrianne Pieczonka observed, “the number of Canadian singers in the competition is an indication of the great voice training the country has to offer.” Such was indeed the case for Sarah Dufresne, whose seemingly effortless coloratura gained a reputation of its own in the competition. Navigating through classics such as “Caro nome” and “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Dufresne won the second prize thanks to her full-bodied, brisk soprano. Speaking of her repertoire, she approaches the matter from an unconventional angle: “Although my voice type usually requires certain roles, I am extremely fascinated by Shakespearean characters,” she told me. “In fact, I tend to favour dramatic complexity above all.” 

Sarah Dufresne, second prize winner in the aria division
© Tam Photography | CMIM

Closing the competition was Canadian baritone Hugo Laporte, also an audience favourite. Laporte’s defining trait was what one could call his generosity: the powerful, solid baritone lavished the audience with a clear, smooth singing style. One might guess Laporte’s natural habitat resides in neat melodic lines, and his scheduled debut at La Scala in 2023 will be something to keep an eye on.

With the announcement of the winners of both divisions, the evening drew to a cheerful end. Artists and audience met in a lively afterparty, one last event before the close of a memorable edition. And as juror Renaud Loranger remarked, “with such talented candidates, we won’t want to miss their development over the next few years.”

This article and press trip for Elena Luporini were sponsored by the Concours musical international de Montréal