Friday, 7 October 2011

LES OISEAUX / Robert Casteels and Ensemble / Review

Robert Casteels & Ensemble
Singapore Conference Hall
Wednesday (5 October 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 October 2011 with the title "Clipped by mishaps".

Les Oiseaux (The Birds) is one man’s tribute to feathered friends and mankind’s fragile relationship with the environment. The scope encompassed by Belgian-Singaporean composer-conductor Robert Casteels was as vast as the subject itself, spanning almost 500 years of music.

In Clement Jannequin’s Chant des Oyseaults (Song oOf Birds), composed in 1529, the spirit of birdsong was wonderfully captured in onomatopoeaic devices and complex polyphony. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Chamber Singers performed with full-throated gusto, also making its presence felt in Casteels’s Bird Songs (2009).

Taking off where the great French composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen left, the 10-minute work blended recorded birdsongs (courtesy of Singapore Nature Society), electronically synthesised sounds and an ensemble dominated by woodwinds and percussion into a coherent collage. Florence Notté’s projected photography of caged birds, water reflections and bamboo forests provided further evocative stimuli.

Messiaen’s own Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird) received a virtuosic showing from flautist Cheryl Lim with Casteels at the piano. Three Korean singers were equally adept in Ravel’s Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis (Three Beautiful Birds of Paradise), the birds being a metaphor for messengers from the afterlife. Yeo Jan Wea’s throaty viola heaved a lengthy sigh in Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi, the perfect scene of pastoral serenity.

If the concert had ended with the hour-long first half, everybody would have left happy and sufficiently edified. The second half, which had nothing to do with birds, blotted the copybook.

The World Premiere of Greed & Fear, a joint composition by Casteels and electro-acoustician Seah Huan Yuh proved a 23-minute long anti-climax. iPad sounds and a string quartet led by violinist Seah jostled for supremacy, accompanied by verbal commentary in French and English about financial matters. The seemingly random string scrapings were supposedly based on the rise and fall of stocks and shares. A novel premise about the faltering European economy, but so what?

Worse was to come in Simple-X, for strings, harp and iPads, (above and below) also by the same composers. The tangled mess of electronic equipment and cables had not been properly set up, resulting in the musicians spending an interminable time wandering like lost sheep on stage, fidgeting with their instruments. Also apparently unrehearsed, the conductor-less performance lurched from one mishap to another, a case of trial and error that could be interpreted as reliving the aleatory techniques of John Cage, or simply down to man-made disaster.

In a concert that probed man’s relationship with nature and machines, the score reads: Gadgets 1 Humans 0.

The performance of Simple-X finally took place after a seemingly interminable delay

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