July 16, 2019

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Hitting a high note

Soprano’s ‘heart-stopping’ performance wins top vocal award at Winnipeg Music Festival

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Fifth time’s the charm: Jessica Kos-Whicher won the Rose Bowl Trophy Saturday after coming up just short on four previous attempts.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fifth time’s the charm: Jessica Kos-Whicher won the Rose Bowl Trophy Saturday after coming up just short on four previous attempts.

Oh, what a pretty night for Winnipeg soprano Jessica Kos-Whicher, who won the Winnipeg Music Festival’s prestigious Rose Bowl trophy this weekend, awarded to the now 101-year old annual event’s most outstanding Grade “A” vocalist of the year.

The 27-year old artist performed two spine-tingling works that earned her the top vocal prize, presented Saturday evening at Westminster United Church.

Adjudicator Robert Loewen praised her “heart-stopping” interpretation of Schubert’s Lied der Delphine, and “breathtaking, and very, very beautiful” delivery of American composer Carlisle Floyd’s searing Ain’t It a Pretty Night, excerpted from his 1955 opera Susannah.

“I didn’t have any expectations tonight, but just went in with the intention to enjoy singing my repertoire that I love so much,” the gracious artist said in an interview after hearing she had been given the nod by the Morden-born, Toronto-based Loewen.

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Oh, what a pretty night for Winnipeg soprano Jessica Kos-Whicher, who won the Winnipeg Music Festival’s prestigious Rose Bowl trophy this weekend, awarded to the now 101-year old annual event’s most outstanding Grade "A" vocalist of the year.

The 27-year old artist performed two spine-tingling works that earned her the top vocal prize, presented Saturday evening at Westminster United Church.

Adjudicator Robert Loewen praised her "heart-stopping" interpretation of Schubert’s Lied der Delphine, and "breathtaking, and very, very beautiful" delivery of American composer Carlisle Floyd’s searing Ain’t It a Pretty Night, excerpted from his 1955 opera Susannah.

"I didn’t have any expectations tonight, but just went in with the intention to enjoy singing my repertoire that I love so much," the gracious artist said in an interview after hearing she had been given the nod by the Morden-born, Toronto-based Loewen.

The 75-minute competition featured eight singers, hosted by Winnipeg’s Donna Fletcher. "And everyone is so good, so it’s really anybody’s game. It’s just a great honour to share the stage with so many friends, and many wonderful colleagues," Kos-Whicher said.

It was the singer’s fifth time on this stage. Her first attempt came seven years ago; she took a two-year hiatus, during which she established her own professional teaching studio in St. James, J. Kos-Whicher Vocal & Performing Arts, to nurture her other passion — sharing her love of music with the next generation of vocalists, and possibly Rose Bowl winners of tomorrow.

Kos-Whicher earned her place this year after winning two of her five classical classes (augmented by a musical theatre class "for fun") last week: Best Opera Aria, Female; and German Lieder, Female. Further testing her mettle was that she was only told she would be in this year’s competition late Thursday night and had less than 48 hours to prepare for Round Six, and alert her collaborative pianist extraordinaire, Lisa Rumpel, who accompanied five of the night’s vocalists.

She also found time to cheer on 26 of her students performing in nearly 100 festival classes throughout the three-week event.

One of the youngest, Stella Turner, won the Frances E. Wickberg Trophy Saturday morning, which inspired Kos-Whicher to scale her own musical Everest later that night.

"I love to teach, and am so proud of all my students," she says. "Seeing them perform made me infinitely less nervous because I watched them all week. I said, ‘Well, if this eight-year-old can do it, then obviously I can sing at the Rose Bowl tonight."

The Rose Bowl Trophy also includes a Winnipeg Music Festival Scholarship and a performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra during its annual spring showcase. The trophy has been awarded each year since 1924.

Kos-Whicher — who has now won every WMF vocal trophy for her age group — received a bounty of additional prizes this year: The Reg Hugo Trophy (her third); the Manitoba Registered Music Teachers’ Association Scholarship (Best Performance of an Opera Aria); and the Herbert and Audrey Belyea Scholarship (her second, for Best Performance of an Art Song). She’s also the inaugural recipient of the newly minted George H. Price Rose Bowl Memorial Bursary, honouring one of the early founders of what was originally called the Manitoba Musical Festival, presented by Price’s grandson this weekend.

A musical career wasn’t always in the cards for the St. James resident, whose mother encouraged her, her two siblings and her father to embark on singing lessons with Winnipeg teacher Anita Kroeker.

However, Kos-Whicher resisted, loath to make herself vulnerable by sharing her heart and soul with listeners.

"It was just so obvious that here was a remarkable voice in a young 13-year-old. It was absolutely remarkable, with a maturity well beyond her age," Kroeker said following Sunday’s gala concert.

After winning a Royal Conservatory of Music Silver Medal for her Grade 1 Voice exam, awarded to each province’s highest scoring singer (and later, the RCM Silver Medal for Grade 8), the aspiring musician surprised even herself by winning the Ladies Orange Benevolent Association Trophy for most outstanding performance for girls 14 years and under at her fledgling WMF in 2006. She quickly realized she had found her true calling, and that she really could sing.

She became mesmerized hearing Heather Kozak, the 2006 Rose Bowl recipient now based in Toronto, perform during the gala finale. It ignited her own passion to sing while becoming the wind beneath her musical sails. This weekend has now brought her full circle, her name now inscribed on the cup for posterity along such Canadian notables as Mary Morrison (’44); Bob McPhee (’80); Dahl (’84); Phillip Ens (’85); and Fletcher (’94), among many others.

Kos-Whicher graduated in 2013 with a bachelor of music degree in vocal performance, and a subsequent post-baccalaureate diploma from the University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music, where she studied with internationally renowned sopranos Tracy Dahl and Monica Huisman.

She still returns to both artists to brush up her repertoire whenever she can, saying she’s learned "everything" from her revered mentors, from tricky vocal technique to how to be a supportive teacher and role model for her own students.

When she’s not teaching, Kos-Whicher, who speaks four different languages, loves to run, listen to self-development podcasts, and spend time with her highly supportive family, as well as partner, shipping consultant Steve Setka. Saturday also marked their one-year anniversary. She’s performed numerous lead roles with Edmonton’s Opera NUOVA, Winnipeg’s Little Opera Company and Manitoba Underground Opera, and was named a finalist in the 2018 WMC McLellan Competition for Solo Performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and a District Winner and Regional Finalist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2015 and 2016.

Many singers in their 20s seek out young artist training programs both here in North America and Europe to further hone their singing chops and help build opera and concert careers. However, Kos-Whicher, a self-described "Prairie girl" with her roots firmly planted in Winnipeg, says her greatest joy is imparting her knowledge and love for music to her students to help them grow as artists while admitting the stage will always be "home."

"I’m very honoured to be a music educator, and feel blessed to be able to go to work every day and not call it work," she says. "But I will always sing, and my heart is very full whenever I perform," she reveals. "I have wanted to compete for the Rose Bowl since I first saw Heather Kozak sing when I was 14. It’s like this moment is bookending a full end of an era for me, and I now get to put my students into this wonderful festival for years to come," she adds. "It’s like a love story, really."

Two runners-up for the trophy were also named this weekend (in alphabetical order): sopranos Christina Thanisch-Smith and Jennifer Turner.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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