This review of the Saturday evening concert was published in The Straits Times on 28 March 2011 with the title "Hola Halo Singapore?"
It is not often that a local musical group devotes an entire concert to music of a living composer who is not a Singaporean. However the American Steve Dobrogosz (born 1956), now resident in Sweden, has written enough choral music of note to merit that kind of attention from the Singapore Youth Choir Ensemble Singers.
A classical composer who crosses comfortably between genres of serious music and jazz/gospel, Dobrogosz was also the pianist for the concert. He began with a spot of solo improvisation before the young singers of SYCES led by conductor and Young Artist Award recipient Jennifer Tham came centrestage for Dobrogosz’s Mass, the programme’s longest work.
Masses in Latin do not have to be entirely solemn. The rhythmic riffs of Kyrie Eleison were sung with repetitious vigour recalling minimalism but coloured with the groovy soul of the Beatles. In Gloria, some semblance of plainchant alternated with bluesy replies from the piano before polyphony gradually took over. Upbeat syncopations in the Credo completed the joyous piece that breaks with stuffy tradition.
Lux Aeterna from the Requiem continued in this happy hallowed manner, rising to a life-affirming crescendo and the purity of a solo soprano’s line. The hymn Only Love Is True luxuriated in its country and gospel leanings. While the lights at Esplanade were dimmed for Earth Hour, luminous voices lit up the stage.
The lighter second half of the concert presented the World Premiere of Singapore Songs. Dobrogosz himself admitted to not having visited Singapore previously, and might be forgiven for writing music to nonsense lyrics like Mocca Bonny May, Hola Halo and Haiku Luna Jah. Listening to these entertaining and heavily rhythm-driven songs, one might guess that Singapore is some mythical exotic locale in the South Pacific, the Caribbean or sub-Saharan Africa. Should one be insulted? No, unless we still live in treetops, subsist on coconuts and wear pineapples as headgear.
Bassist Tony Makarome and drummer Tamagoh were also on hand to accompany Dobrogosz in the purely instrumental Road Song. More improvisation and ad libs before the choir returned in four Gospels. Hallelujah, Too, Father Down, Mighty River, Roads and the encore Lord, I’m Free. Written in the best tradition of Afro-American spirituals, these closed the concert with much gusto and verve.