Conrad competition brings out the best in BGSU singers

Caroline Kouma and Rhys Burgess


BG Independent News

The audience at the Conrad Art Song Competition finals Saturday night did a good job following instructions to hold their applause until the performers had completed all their songs.

Holding their laughter was another matter. Several of the competitors offered up light hearted songs, and even if they were in a foreign language they managed in their gestures and facial expressions to draw a reaction.

Soprano Caroline Kouma enlivened her performance of Leo Deliebes’ “Les filles de Cadix” with a coquettish manner. Pianist Rhys Burgess served as her musical straight man, punctuating her acting.

That kind of interplay won the duo first place in the graduate division of the 19th Conrad competition.

Winners in the undergraduate division were baritone Luke Serrano and pianist Yuefeng Liu.

Yuefeng Liu and Luke Serrano

The event was created with a gift two decades ago by Conrad, a local doctor who resumed her vocal studies later in life. She passed away at 92 in 2014. Her spirit lives on through the competition, said Christopher Scholl, who coordinates the event. “She would be extremely proud of you tonight,” Scholl told the performers Saturday.

Dean Southern, a vocal coach from the Cleveland Institute of Music, was one of the three outside professionals adjudicating the performances.

BGSU “should be very proud,” of the competition, he said. “It’s definitely unusual and unique and to be celebrated.”

Southern said he was impressed by the emphasis on the singer and pianist as a team, not just a singer with a pianist assisting.

“That’s part of my DNA,” he said, noting that he studied piano before turning to voice. “The song will never be complete if those two parts are not there together.”

Southern was also impressed that the duos were required to perform at least one song by a living composer. “That’s really important.”

Adam O’Dell, who recently received his master’s in composition from BGSU, agreed. As an undergraduate, he said, the vocalists focused on Mozart, Schumann, and the like. But at BGSU he could have a singer, Luke Schmidt, perform his song “There Will Be Rest” in a showcase event.

Singers are required to perform six songs, at least one each in German, French, Italian, and English with no more than two in English.

During the preliminary round held during the day Saturday, Kouma, a student of Sujin Lee, performed a piece in Icelandic. She loves languages. Between her undergraduate work at Nebraska Wesleyan University and her graduate studies at BGSU, she served in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan. She learned enough of Azerbaijan to be conversant.

“It was the first time I learned a language so I could live in,” she said. It is like being a different person. “I like singing in different language and be able to step into that perspective.”

A trip to Iceland several summers ago inspired her selection of Jon Asgeirsson’s song. While there she learned a couple pieces working with vocal coach.

“It’s interesting music,” she said. “There’s a strain of melancholy even in the happiest songs, and the language is absolutely stunning.”

Whether English or Icelandic, Burgess said as an accompanist, it’s important for him to know the words.  He wants to know how they sound, what syllables he needs to highlight in his playing.

He loves working with a singer. “The whole is greater than the parts.” A piano performance major, he said he is considering pursuing another masters in collaborative piano.

Kouma had high praise for Burgess. “We have similar ideas musically and that helps. He also listens very well and is responsive and sensitive.”

Burgess came to BGSU on the advice of I-Chen Yeh who teaches at Oakland University. , Yeh won the Conrad competition in 2007 when she was a doctoral student here and recommended he study with Laura Melton, her former teacher. Burgess studied with Tian Tian at Oakland.

That’s also what brought undergraduate pianist Liu to BGSU. She came from China to study with Melton on the recommendation of two of her former teachers, one of them Chu-Fang Huang, an internationally renowned performer and former student of Melton’s.

Liu agreed that knowing the meaning of the song, even if one can’t speak the language, is essential to working closely with the singer.

Serrano, a student of Scholl, said he loves the language aspect of learning songs. One of his two minors, along with music business, is Italian. He will spend the spring of his fifth undergraduate year in Italy, studying the language and staying with a host family.

He agrees the pianist must also be in synch with the lyric. For a collaborator he wants “someone willing to put the time and work into the music and really get into the nitty gritty, really understand the history and everything about the text so you can really make a rounded performance that has all these details, the small expressive things, that really bring out the best in each of us as performers.”

Liu provided that level of collaboration.

The Conrad Competition “really gives you something to look forward to in the spring semester.”

He appreciates that the competition has undergraduate and graduate divisions. “There’s so much to learn from all the graduate students. Just getting to watch them is so enjoyable.”

Other undergraduate winners were: second place, tenor Aaron Hill and pianist Xi Li, and third place, baritone Nicholas Kittman and pianist Hannah Bossner. Ten duos competed in the undergraduate division.

In the graduate division, winners included: second place, soprano Alicia Berryhill and pianist Sijia Lin, and third place, baritone Benjamin Ganger and pianist Emily Morin. Nine duos competed in the graduate division.