Monday, 25 July 2011

THE POETIC JOURNEY WITH STEPHEN CLEOBURY / The Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Review

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (23 July 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 July 2011 with th title "Chorus for a sparse audience".

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, founded by Lim Yau and Singapore’s finest a cappella choir, has worked with the world’s top choral conductors over the years. Its latest concert was helmed by Englishman Stephen Cleobury, long associated with the King’s College Choir, Cambridge and BBC Singers.

But where was the audience in the sparsely-filled Esplanade, in particular students of the schools’ choral excellence programmes? Winning awards at the Singapore Youth Festival mean nothing when young singers and their teachers cannot learn from Singapore’s best led by the world’s best.

Their loss is especially acute with such peerless performances of varied German and British choral music. The first half was entirely Teutonic, beginning with Heinrich Schutz’s Jauchzet dem Herrn (Make a Joyful Noise), where rich polyphony immediately piqued the ears and excited the senses.

The 34-member choir’s ability to vary nuances was heard to great effect in Brahms’s Warum ist das licht gegeben (Wherefore is Light Given), where each succeeding plaint resounded with different intensities and degrees of earnestness. In Mendelssohn’s Richte mich, Gott (Judge Me, O God) and Reger’s O Tod (O Death), dynamics and colours shifted from dark and forbidding to the light of hope and respite.

J.S.Bach’s joyous motet Lobet den Herrn (Praise the Lord) also demonstrated the choir’s masterly execution of fugal writing. Their ability to change gears and switch modes for the second half’s 20th century British choral fare was equally remarkable.

Although tonal in idiom, Michael Tippett’s Dance, Clarion Air and Nicholas Maw’s One Foot in Eden were demanding in intonation, coordination and rhythmic subtleties. Myriad colours were exploited, bathing the hall with a rainbow-like glow of light and shade. The excellent quartet of solos, answered by the warm main corpus, suggests they have been singing this music all their lives.

Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs and Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia have long been in the choir’s repertoire since its early years. Yet these sounded even better now, ripe and mature in every way.

If there were an abiding memory of this evening’s masterclass, it would be Scotsman James Macmillan’s Christus Vincit (Christ Conquers). From a sea of otherworldly voices soared the virginal pure soprano voice of Mairianne Reardon, the very evocation of the eternal spirit transcending the temporal body. Encore!

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