Tier I winners
(left to right) JTVA Founder and General Director James Toland with Camille Sherman, Raven McMillon, and Moisés Salazar | Credit: Kristen Loken

At its 10th annual competition earlier this month, the Oakland-based nonprofit James Toland Vocal Arts awarded some $50,000 to young singers. From more than 300 applicants, 14 finalists in two tiers of competition vied for the prizes. Tier I is for singers ready to launch a professional career, Tier II for those in earlier stages of career preparation.

Mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman, from Petaluma, won the top prize for Tier I, singing Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, an aria from a role she debuted with both Pensacola Opera and Opera Idaho last year. She will recreate the role this fall when she joins Theater Basel’s OperAvenir studio for the 2023–2024 season. Her second selection for the competition was the Composer’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos.

The performance marked a return for Sherman, who first participated in the competition as a Tier I finalist in 2019 and received an encouragement award that year. About this year’s results, she said: “I am still walking on a cloud after winning first prize and audience choice in Tier I of the James Toland Competition this past weekend. I was so blown away by every singer I heard, and it is a true honor to be given this recognition. I can’t recommend this competition highly enough. James Toland and his team care deeply about singers and deliver a fantastic experience. I am so grateful for this professional send-off before I start the next chapter of my career abroad.”

Frederica von Stade
Frederica von Stade | Credit: Robert Millard

Frederica von Stade was a judge for the contest, and Sherman said: “One of the coolest parts was having Flicka, a hero to mezzos everywhere, on the panel. Being celebrated by one of your idols is a pinch-me moment. I fought with all my might to keep it together while she and I talked afterward.”

Mezzo-soprano Anna Kelly placed first in Tier II, flying in for the competition from Wolf Trap Opera, where she is covering Athamas (Semele) and Siebel (Faust) this summer. She gave her debut recital at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., this spring after spending the 2022–2023 season as a Bailey Apprentice Artist with Palm Beach Opera.

Kelly said: “This was one of the best competition experiences I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot of good ones!), and I was so honored to walk away with first place and the audience favorite award. I met so many wonderful people, including one of my idols, Frederica von Stade, who gave me wonderful feedback and advice.

“It’s an amazing experience to hear positive feedback from one of your idols, especially when you’re singing their rep. After a 4:45 a.m. arrival back to Wolf Trap [for] rehearsal Monday morning … and a quick lunch concert today, I’ve finally had a chance to let this weekend sink in. Thank you to James Toland, my wonderful host family, and all the eminent judges for a fabulous experience and for this opportunity. I am so grateful.”

In keeping with JTVA’s mission to nurture and support singers in their pursuit of a vocal career, all finalists participate in master classes the day before the competition. This year the Tier I master class was taught by soprano Patricia Racette, once a young singer in the Bay Area herself and a graduate of the Merola Opera Program and San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship Program.

She said of the competition weekend: “I was so thrilled to be invited to conduct a masterclass for JTVA. The talent level of the singers was mightily impressive and the generosity of the presenters equally so.”

Tier II winners
(left to right) James Toland, Anna Kelly, Hannah Cho, and SeongBeom Choi | Credit: Kristen Loken

Composer-pianist Jake Heggie also participated in the contest, and he told SF Classical Voice: “What an absolute thrill to attend the 10th annual JTVA Vocal Competition and to hear an extraordinary range of young singers from vastly different backgrounds and perspectives.

“It is so deeply heartening and reassuring to hear performances of such intense passion and joy; it lifts my heart and spirit — and gives me great hope for what’s ahead in the opera world. Patricia Racette gave one of the finest and most memorable master classes in memory.”

Over the program’s 10 years, Toland has given prizes and assistance totaling some $500,000 to aspiring singers.

The late Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan said:

When James Toland approached me about having a voice competition, what interested me was the fact that the competition will encourage fine singing talent across many genres. In the first competition, opera, traditional jazz and cabaret, art songs, and musical theater will all be in the mix. Future competitions will be expanded to other forms as well.

There are not a lot of other contests around that seek out and promote good singing regardless of the type of music being sung. This is one thing that’s missing from our music education efforts in the Bay Area.”

Sarah Yuan
Sarah Yuan performing at the 2021 Ross McKee Piano Competition | Courtesy of Ross McKee Piano Competition

Another local organization serving young musicians is the Ross McKee Foundation, which has just announced the launch of the John Cron Award for Career Development and its inaugural recipient, Sarah Yuan. She is a 2021 McKee Piano Competition laureate.

The competition, known for celebrating the extraordinary abilities of young piano virtuosi in the S.F. Bay Area, has become an esteemed platform for emerging artists.

The annual career development award will be given to a current or previous winner of the competition, and it is tailored to the needs of the recipient, providing performance opportunities and assistance in the advancement of his or her career.

The award for Yuan includes a recital presented by the San Francisco International Piano Festival on Aug. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Maybeck Studio for the Performing Arts. The first half of the program features solo works, including Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, and Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. Following intermission, Yuan is joined by her fellow members of the Aveta Trio — violinist Eunseo Oh and cellist Elliott Kim — for Franz Schubert’s Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D. 898.

In addition, the award includes a professional recording opportunity and mentorship from leading Bay Area pianists, including Jeffrey LaDeur and Sarah Cahill.

Yuan began piano studies at age 7, and she has also won awards at the Pacific Musical Society Competition, the Etude Club of Berkeley’s Young Artist Competition, and the Sturm-Page Scholarship Competition.

As part of the Bay Area’s Young Chamber Musicians program, Yuan plays with the Aveta Trio, which won the gold medal in the junior string division at the Fischoff Competition in 2021. She has performed in masterclasses for Tamás Ungár, Albert Kim, Michael Tan, Jeffrey LaDeur, the Gryphon Trio, and the Lee Trio.

The John Cron Award was created by the McKee Foundation’s board of directors in February 2023 to honor the enduring legacy of the late John Cron, the foundation’s first and founding executive director.

Nicholas Pavkovic, current executive director, said: “This award provides a unique opportunity for the McKee board to work closely with exceptionally gifted and driven young artists, their teachers, and mentors to foster and support their artistic development. The board will actively assist in identifying performance and promotional opportunities, as well as professional recording opportunities, in order to nurture their growth and success.”

Since its establishment in 1998, the Ross McKee Piano Competition has awarded more than $150,000 in prize money, in addition to granting participants performance and professional-level recording opportunities. Numerous laureates have gone on to have distinguished careers as concert pianists and educators.