Ralph Kohn competition is an exception to the rule

At 84, the baritone is not about to give up on his musical pursuits

The world isn’t short of singing competitions, and those who take a dim view of music as blood-sports might say there are more than enough. But they tend to focus on opera – which supplies the big moments, big orchestral finals, and a bigger audience. Not many are confined to song.

The Wigmore/Kohn Foundation competition, though, is an exception. It’s exclusively about the intimate experience of singing songs. No Nessun Dorma-ing. No top Cs and tiaras.

Songs are a more microscopic art, concerned with detail, nuance and refinement. So it isn’t inappropriate that this competition – which comes around every two years and has its 2011 season next month – is funded by someone whose life has been spent peering into microscopes.

The Kohn in the competition’s name is Hampstead pharmacologist Sir Ralph Kohn, whose distinguished medical career has taken him from early encounters with Nobel laureates to running one of Britain’s leading clinical evaluation companies.

He functions out of Harley Street. But when you go into his office, it’s not medical equipment that you see. It’s busts of great composers. Music memorabilia. A glance around the room will tell you that Ralph Kohn has led a life of seriously divided loyalties: science and music.

‘It was always like this’, he explains. ‘As a young man doing my research I was also taking singing lessons. Now I’m not so young but I still sing, and I take an interest in others who sing – which is why I set up this competition with the Wigmore Hall.

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‘This is the seventh time we’ve done it, and I think we can say it’s now well-established. There were 170 applicants this year from 33 countries across the world; and all these young singers apply because the competition has built a name for itself.

‘We have eminent judges - who this year include great voices like Thomas Quasthoff, Bernada Fink, Soile Isokoski, as well as great accompanists like Graham Johnson and Malcolm Martineau.

‘And of course, the fact that it happens at Wigmore Hall – one of the world’s great centres for the song repertoire – is no bad thing. You can see why people want to be involved’.

That Kohn himself is personally involved – not only underwriting the event but sitting on the jury – has attracted comment in the past, and it’s a matter of some sensitivity. But as he stresses, he takes no part in the voting.

‘If I’m asked for an opinion I’ll happily give one, but I have no vote. It really isn’t the case that because I support the competition I want to determine its outcome. The voting judges are more expert than I could be, and it’s their views that count’.

As Kohn knows, people who write cheques for art are meant to keep their distance from the art itself: to cross the line is to expose yourself to criticism, and occasionally ridicule. But crossing lines is in his nature, and he does it with panache.

Devoted to Bach, he has a hands-on involvement with virtually all the Bach-related organisations in Leipzig where only the other month the Lord Mayor presented him with the city’s Medal of Honour. He collects musical manuscripts, including a complete autograph of Bach’s Cantata BWV128: an object of exquisite rarity and value. And he exhibits it with undisguised pride at the series of Sunday morning Bach cantata concerts he initiated at the Royal Academy of Music – a long-running project that aims to get through all 200+ of the cantatas by 2017, God and the world economy willing.

But his most audacious line-crossing has always been his second life as a baritone; and few second lives get pursued so seriously. He’s given concerts at the Wigmore, QEH and Purcell Room. He’s made some twenty CDs. And though all these projects have been self-financed, which tempts some to dismiss them as vanity exercises, they’ve also attracted acclaim – as well as acclaimed collaborators like Graham Johnson.

That he’s still recording CDs at the age of 84 – there’s a Beethoven and Schubert disc just out – might raise eyebrows. But as he says, ‘my voice is there, it works; and if people say it can’t be so, that’s ageism. Of which there is a lot in the arts. I know it’s hard to accept, but sometimes with age things do get better’.

Maybe the next Ralph Kohn venture should be a singing competition with a lower age-limit rather than an upper. Then he could prove his point, emphatically.

The Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition runs 4-8 September at Wigmore Hall. Full details: www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/songcompetition

The next concert in the RAM Bach Cantata series is Sunday 30 Oct, 12noon. Tickets: 020 78737300.