WONG KAH CHUN, Conductor
Streamed on the Internet @ YouTube Live
Thursday (30 July 2020)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 August 2020 with the title "Uplifting performance delivers message of friendship and unity".
On Christmas Day 1989, a concert at Berlin’s Konzerthaus saw a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, known as his Choral Symphony, led by legendary American conductor Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra and singers comprised an international legion of musicians from Germany, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union and United States of America. The celebratory occasion had marked the fall of the Berlin Wall just the month before.
A similar assemblage of performers, now over a thousand-strong from around the planet, reprised the symphony’s final movement Ode To Joy on International Friendship Day (30 July). Conducting the Internet-united ensemble was Singapore’s Wong Kah Chun (or Kahchun Wong as he is known internationally), winner of the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition and Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra.
In what is possibly mankind’s darkest hour of the new millennium, besieged by the Covid-19 global pandemic, Wong’s “universal musical kampong” delivered a heartwarming message. “Alle Menschen Werden Bruder”, or All People Become Brothers, was Friedrich Schiller’s clarion call of 1785, which became Beethoven’s personal credo in his final symphony of 1824.
All 25 minutes or so of the Ode was performed. Even for those with limited attention spans, it seemed a breeze. The virtual concert hall, with a 360° view of all the performers in socially distanced screens with Wong leading at its centre, was a marvel of modern innovation and technology.
The opening outburst and low string declamations suggested a world in primordial chaos, and the visual was that of Wong conducting within a fiery sea of lava and rising steam. With each measure of Beethoven’s iconic melody, each player was introduced in a puff of smoke, until a revolving wall of humanity surrounded the maestro. Disorder had given way to a semblance of form.
Then it was bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s declaration of O Freunde (O Friends), a coming together of peoples, leading into the greenery of Beethoven Im Garten, Wong and Singapore German Embassy’s shared vision of bringing Beethoven to the masses. A celestial band of angel-winged players (providing unusually comic moments) accompanied tenor Gerard Schneider for the Turkish march episode before the tutti chorus’ glorious statement of the big tune.
With hundreds, possibly a thousand faces appearing onscreen for the first time, this was the proverbial “lump in the throat” moment, sending shocks of frisson coursing down the spine. The choral fugue was accompanied by four staves in German (with English transliterations), each corresponding to a SATB (soprano alto tenor bass) voice part, a nifty concept that hinted of karaoke inspirations at play.
The ensemble was then transported into a smart pencil-drawn 3-D representation of Esplanade Concert Hall before closing with a coda in the clouds, all players being united for the final time. With excellent recorded sound and crystal clear visuals, Beethoven 360° was a truly memorable and immersive experience to savoured over and over.