James Newby's Prize Winner's Diary

We caught up with young British baritone James Newby, a prize winner at the 2015 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition, following his success.

James Newby © Benjamin EalovegaIt seems like the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition is the competition that just keeps on giving. After the 2015 Competition, the Perth International Festival very generously extended its Prize to two of the winners from the Competition, not just one, which enabled me to go to Australia this February; Milan Siljanov, the other winner, will go to Perth in February 2017. So, five months on from winning 3rd Prize and the Richard Tauber Prize at the 2015 Competition, I have just got back from an amazing time performing in the Perth International Arts Festival Chamber Music Weekend (try saying that after one too many Foster’s!). The first thing I learnt is that they don’t actually drink Foster’s in Australia but instead have lots of very nice microbreweries selling locally brewed craft beers. The second thing I learnt is that if you are a pale, white British tourist, don’t go to Australia without factor 50 sun cream and a pair of sunglasses. So after a quick beer, a trip to the Sunhut for the sunglasses and the chemist for some sun cream, I was all set for my week in Perth.

As a city, Perth is a world away from the frantic hustle and bustle that I’d left behind in London, just 24 hours previously. It’s a clean, well kept, sleepy place which you just couldn’t help but relax into. And relax into it I did, spending the first day and a half with my nose in a book sampling various coffee shops and restaurants around the city. This was certainly fine by me as the coffee was amazing! From small independent cafes right up to the bigger chains, Perth was proud to serve lattes that even a Shoreditch hipster would praise for their excellent bean quality and perfect milk temperature, and the food did not disappoint either. On my first night I treated myself to a ‘Grill’d’ burger; a restaurant chain who claim to make “proper meals, not rubbery snacks that dissolve in seconds” and boy did they deliver. So after a couple of days sipping lattes, eating healthy burgers and a quick trip to Cottesloe beach to catch the sunset, I was ready to start rehearsing.

Winthrop Hall © James NewbyWhen the rehearsals started the holiday was over and the work began. All we were afforded was six hours rehearsal for two one-hour programmes and bit by bit the demands of an international music career became apparent. This is music that I had been working on with a pianist for months and months, and even after all that time we felt there was so much more left to do – yet I now had just six hours to piece these programmes together with an accompanist I had never met. This, however, is typical of the profession and, about 30 seconds into the opening piece of the rehearsal, I knew it was all going to be fine. I was so fortunate to be working with Amir Farid, an outstanding accompanist who was responsive and aware as well as assertive and expressive; this rapidly became one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my career. Not much was said in rehearsals, not much needed to be said. We both came knowing the music extremely well and knowing what the composers were asking for and how we might best complement the music in order to try and communicate the texts. From this basis it became a listening exercise; we seemed to feed off one another and react to each other. The fact that it felt so spontaneous and playful made it seem like a very natural and honest way of making music. It was gratifying to see that everything I felt was then so evident in the performances; the connection with the audience throughout the recitals felt so strong and, despite the lack of rehearsal time, I felt that these performances contained some of my most successfully expressive and communicative singing to date.

However, Amir and I can’t take full credit for the great rapport we struck with the audiences, we were undoubtedly helped by the whole atmosphere of the festival and the vision and execution of the programmers and staff. I was told a few days in that this was the first time there had ever been a chamber music weekend at the PIAF (Perth International Arts Festival) and I was astonished. It ran like clockwork and everything was just geared towards making it a relaxing and enjoyable environment for performers and audiences alike. The venue was similarly special with the performances predominantly taking place inside the University of Western Australia’s Winthrop Hall, a most glorious building with high ceilings and Aboriginal Art painted on the beams as well as a large organ and beautiful rose window that any great English cathedral would envy. As if this wasn’t enough there was an outdoor stage which played host to the entire collection of Bach Suites for Solo Cello, as well as a 14 hour long piano marathon of Satie’s ‘Vexations’ and even Austrian dancers and an oompah band. I provoked much hilarity when I naively asked ‘what if it rains?’ as we stood in 38-degree heat, beneath possibly the bluest, least cloudy sky I’ve ever witnessed. All in all, the audiences were in the mood to be entertained, they were treated to top notch performance after top notch performance and some young English bloke wasn’t going to burst their bubble. In fact, according to Mark Coghlan in The Australian I even ‘Nearly stole the show’. Nearly…

When you enter competitions you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know how far you’ll get, how well you’ll do or what it might lead to. As a 22-year-old undergraduate student, I can tell you I wasn’t expecting anything. What has happened, however, I am convinced has been life-changing and fittingly enough, for a festival nicknamed PIAF, ‘Je ne regrette rien’. I’ve had a taste of what it’s like as an international recitalist and I just hope they invite me back.