Saturday, 23 October 2010


Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (21 October 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 October 2010.

Simply put, Orphei Drängar, or Sons of Orpheus, is one of the world’s great male choirs. Its history goes back 157 years as a glee club from Uppsala University, Sweden, with which its strong ties remain. Yet this 80-man group led by Cecilia Rydinger Alin is far from a monolithic body, as its versatility and suppleness of ensemble is staggering.

Its two-hour long a cappella recital began with its official anthem Hear, Sons Of Orpheus, a lusty song written by no less than Hugo Alfven (of Swedish Rhapsody fame), one of its former directors. Then emcee Jacob Risberg, a chorus member, greeted the bemused audience in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, one of many surprises to light up this enthralling show.

At once, one was struck by the richness and depth of sonority, distinguished by multi-layered textures that enveloped the hall like a giant satin shawl, lined with silk but firmed by steel. It was equally at home with light, as in Alfven’s Evening or Mendelssohn’s Gondolier’s Journey, and darkness, amply demonstrated in works by Anders Hillborg’s A Cradle Song and Otakar Jeremias’ Ostrava.

There were many shades of grey in the Hillborg, its otherworldly almost sinister dreamscape suggesting that sleep was no merely innocent activity. The Jeremias, a coalminer’s warning sung in Czech, carried such ominous socialist overtones that one wondered whether some political agenda was afoot.

Some of the concert’s most beautiful moments were in the company of soprano Elin Rombo (above), whose siren-like voice wafted hauntingly above the choir’s rhythmic ostinatos in Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’ Helletused, based on shepherds’ and children’s songs. She also starred in Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s famous opera, albeit in deeply-accented English, a Bellini aria and several Swedish songs by Peterson-Berger.

Time and space does not permit a complete listing of the riches on offer, but some were notable by their sheer power of communication. In Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (Light of Gold), the singers placed themselves along the aisles and beside the audience, achieving the ethereal effect of a cathedral of sound, bathed in aural splendour. In Jan Sandstrom’s Singing Apes Of Khao Yai, waves of repetitive, almost minimalist chants filled the hall, above which a gibbon’s plaint sounded, sung by a tenor donning a monkey mask.

Can you spot the man in the monkey mask?
(He's in front of the conductor)

The evening’s generous fare closed with a ubiquitous drinking song, from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, and three encores including the Beatles’ Yesterday. One almost wished tomorrow never came.

Orphei Drängar was presented by the Young Musicians Society.

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