Sunday, 17 April 2011


A TAPESTRY OF SACRED MUSIC / 15 April 2011, Esplanade Theatres on the Bay

Sometimes we take for granted the freedom of religion and beliefs we enjoy in Singapore. In a secular state that preaches tolerance of other faiths other than Mammon, we have done well for ourselves. Unlike certain neighbouring states where one runs the risk of being fire-bombed while attending church service, or having one’s temple of worship desecrated, everybody living in Singapore peacefully pursues his or her own creeds without fear or favour.

This wealth of diversity was never better illustrated than in Esplanade’s three-day-long festival A Tapestry of Sacred Music. We witnessed a sample of this over a four-hour stretch on a cool Friday evening, beginning with Tibetan Sacred Music (above) by the Jamchen Lhakang Monastery of Kathmandu, Nepal. The Outdoor Stage was the perfect setting for this meditative exercise with seventeen Tibetan monks chanting a series of mantras, each sequence punctuated by issues from an assortment of blown instruments (including the Himalayan version of the alphorn and the dung, or blown conch shell). Although we did not understand the words, the monotone repetitiveness of its message was a strangely calming one. Their’s is the power of positive thinking, and the helpful programme notes provided some clues, such as the chants translated as:

May all cities be beautiful and the wealth of its people increase.

May the mountains and fields be beautiful, may the people sing with great joy without pride or argument.

May the government take care of its people and pacify all wars.

What noble thoughts such as these cannot but move the stoniest of hearts or the hardcore sceptic. Why not share it with the rest of the world?

Quite different were the offerings by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and combined choruses in the Concert Hall with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Although these were not officially part of the Festival, the serendipitous coincidence was totally uncanny.

For once relieved of reviewing duties, we were perched high up in Circle Two where a bird’s eye view of the full ensemble was afforded. And the sound was remarkably vivid; almost every entry (including occasional wrong ones) were caught with amazing clarity. The 125 singers acquitted themselves superbly, helped by Stravinsky’s transparent scoring (no violins and violas) for the Symphony (last performed in Singapore way back in 1986!) and a battery of percussion. The rhythmic chugging of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism (not to mention a reaffirmation of his Russian Orthodox faith he grew up with) and preciseness of delivery made for a highly stimulating performance.

Even more impressive was the Singapore premiere of the Walton, which is scored for far bigger orchestral forces. Sir Thomas Beecham once told the young composer, “Why not throw in a couple of brass bands, since you won’t get to hear it again?” It’s now a Proms favourite and a tour de force for choral groups. Not exactly religious in nature, the oratorio nevertheless provides a spectacle of biblical proportions. The American baritone Stephen Powell had a bright clangour which makes a change from the dour British basses one is more accustomed to on recordings. His voice transcended clearly through to the rafters, and the chorus was equally trenchant, not least with its shout of “Slain!” which caught some (probably napping) listeners by surprise. My only wish was that the fourth row in the gallery was filled, as fifty extra voices would have made for an even more emphatic performance.

Congratulations go to conductor Lim Yau for helming this particularly challenging programme with great conviction, which also included Milhaud’s jazz-influenced ballet The Creation of the World and How Blessed is They Dwelling Place from Brahms’ A German Requiem. The latter was sung in tribute to the late great Singaporean composer Leong Yoon Pin was left us on 13 April. He was Singapore’s musical pioneer, also a founding member and section leader of the Singapore Symphony Chorus when it was formed in 1980 (which incidentally performed the Brahms at its first concert).

A post-concert supper took us to the alfresco Barossa restaurant, where we could hear strains of the Thai piphat ensemble from Ramkamheng University (below) from the Outdoor Stage. Also part of the sacred music festival, this was yet another interesting facet of the Buddhist religion, one of Thai royal courts, and far removed from the Tibetan variety. Our musical evening was complete, and our minds and souls at peace with the Universe.

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