The Montreal International Musical Competition, this year devoted to voice, ended on a high note with the Winners’ Gala Concert on June 8. First, Second and Third Prize winners sang two arias each, but, in a gratifying show of solidarity with the remaining finalists, the program afforded concertgoers the opportunity to hear the five runners-up as well. As the overall level of the contestants was exceptionally high, almost any of the eight finalists might easily have been one of the top winners (23 competed in the quarter-final round).Vocal technique was uniformly strong. Only degrees of interpretive insight, expressivity and stage presence separated one competitor from another.

First Prize ($30,000) went to Quebecer Philippe Sly, who bills himself as a bass-baritone but whose elegant, cleanly-focused, burnished timbre lacks real heft and seems more at home in the regular baritone repertory. The voice was ideal for an aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Make thyself pure, my heart”), one of the most sublimely beautiful and comforting arias Bach ever wrote, but Sly couldn’t quite seem to keep the momentum going in this long number. On the other hand, he captured to perfection all the wry humor and exuberance of Leporello in his “Catalogue” aria (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), so called because Leporello reels off to Elvira a long list of other women the Don has seduced and abandoned.

Sly, at 23 the youngest of the eight finalists, not only won the hefty First Prize but raked in four smaller ones as well, amassing a pot of $55,000, the highest ever in the ten-year history of the competition. With his boyish good looks, a winning smile and a bounce in his walk, he was virtually a shoo-in for the People’s Choice Award. As First Prize winner he automatically took the prizes also for Best Canadian Artist and Best Artist from Quebec. He additionally won the prize for best performance of the compulsory new Canadian work, John Estacio’s Daybreak, a lyrical, seven-minute song with piano that sounded like warmed-over Samuel Barber but left little impression.

Swiss soprano Olga Kindler won Second Prize ($20,000), which she richly deserved if for nothing else than the enormous range of colors and thoughtful expressivity she brought to “Pleurez, mes yeux” (Weep, my eyes) from Massenet’s Le Cid, the aria in which Chimène pours out her grief over an impossible situation: she has condemned to death the man she still loves for having killed her father in a duel. Probably more so than any other contestant this year, Kindler’s voice is truly voluptuous. In addition, she can project the thinnest thread of sound to the back of the hall and soar over the full orchestra playing fortissimo. I for one would love to hear her sing Salome. Third Prize ($10,000) went to American baritone John Brancy, who obviously impressed the jury more than he did me. The voice is undeniably beautiful, the delivery energetic, even forceful at times, particularly in his portrayal of Rossini’s barber (“Largo al factotum”) but otherwise his performances lacked color and nuance.

A spirit of camaraderie and collegiality often informs the Montreal International competitions, and this one was no exception. Underscoring this spirit was the decision to invite the five runners-up to sing duets (Kindler helped out here) at the Winners’ Gala Concert. All three duets were among the highlights of the program and bolstered the belief that any of these highly talented singers might easily have lost First, Second or Third Prize by a single vote. Canadian soprano Emily Duncan-Brown, my choice for First Prize, repeated the aria from La Traviata she had sung in the Finals (“Sempre libera”), this time with her lover Alfredo in attendance, ardently sung in a splendidly ringing voice by Belarusian Yuri Gorodetski. No encore could have been more appropriate than the same opera’s drinking song, for which the seventeen competitors still in town poured onto the stage for a grand finale.

In just ten years, the Montreal International Musical Competition has set a tradition for picking winners who survive the initial glory and publicity and go on to sustain important careers. Among these have been sopranos Marianne Fiset and Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, baritone Phillip Addis, pianists Serhiy Salov and Nareh Arghamanyan, and violinist Benjamin Beilman. This year’s winners look well positioned to carry on the tradition. We wish them well.