Tuesday, 10 March 2009

SYC Ensemble Singers Concert: Birth and Death / Review

SYC Ensemble Singers
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (8 March 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 March 2009.

Way back in 1992, a Straits Times article named the Singapore Youth Choir (SYC) as the land’s top chorus. The choir’s commitment to new music and ability to galvanise young singers into a dynamic a cappella force were major reasons. Known as the SYC Ensemble Singers today, its conductor Jennifer Tham cited over 40 new works commissioned since the 1980s. Ten of these were given world premieres in 2004 alone, on the choir’s 40th anniversary.

One was Singaporean composer Hoh Chung Shih’s Birth and Death, a 5-movement meditation on texts by Vietnamese peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, providing the title and framework to this concert. The movements were divided into three blocs, in a way reminiscent of Mahler’s view of his Fifth Symphony, incidentally a journey from death to rebirth.

The choir had two Chinese words to sing – sheng (Birth or Life) and si (Death) - but the ingenious treatment stood out. In the 1st movement, three lines of singers whispered the consonants “sh” and “s” while snaking around three islands of voices that sang the words. The brief 2nd movement issued beautiful harmonies in an antiphonal manner with half the choir placed behind the audience.

Italian composer Corrado Margutti’s D’Amore e d’Ombre (About Love and Shadows), with texts by renaissance artist Michaelangelo, contrasted soothing textures in O Notte (O Night) with madrigal-like runs in Fugite Amanti (Flee From This Love). The dissonances of the former provided a strangely surreal respite, while a semi-chorus of 4 in the latter held their own through much intricate counterpoint.

Hoh’s 3rd movement saw the choir in two concentric circles with their backs facing the audience. Then came arguably the two most accessible works, Lithuanian Vytautas Miskinis’ Time Is Endless, with its highly reassuring F major chords, and Australian Stephen Leek’s Burrinjuck, a paean to the glorious outback.

Back to Hoh, the aleatoric 4th movement featured the 28 singers striking pebbles in a random manner, while singing the two words on command from Tham’s hands (left). Shades of Gyorgy Ligeti’s metronomic masterpiece as the sound of stone gradually dissipated into silence. The final movement channeled the spirit of John Cage; absolute silence as the conductor’s strokes drew out the Chinese characters on the studio’s backdrop with the aid of Gavin Lim’s multimedia projections.

While appreciative applause greeted the performers, all that remained was the word sheng, boldly emblazoned. The cycle of life, death and birth continues in perpetuity.

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