Monday 10 September 2012

ZEN RENAISSANCE / The Philharmonic Chamber Choir with Ueno Koshuzan / Review

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Saturday (8 September 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 September 2012 with the title "Chorus of celestial harmonies".

Following the popular success of the Hilliard Ensemble juxtaposing early choral music with Jan Garbarek’s saxophone, The Philharmonic Chamber Choir (TPCC) conducted by Lim Yau has attempted something along similar lines by working with locally based Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) master Ueno Koshuzan.

What do Renaissance choral motets have to do with Honkyoku (Zen music) played on the shakuhachi? Nothing really, except when these are performed and heard in turn, one feels a spiritual kinship between the two completely different art forms, and translated into an unusual synergy.

The music of John Taverner and Giovanni Palestrina, both 16th century masters, represent an early pinnacle of polyphony, while the shakuhachi pieces dating from the early 20th century are strictly monophonic. This does not mean that one civilisation was musically or culturally more advanced than the other, but both seem to have sought purity and enlightenment in completely different ways. 

The 35-member chorus yielded an even, homogeneous sound that filled the naturally reverberant auditorium with a warm and velvety glow. This is simply the best hall for choral and intimate music making. Celestial harmonies wafted through the air, and with the end of each choral piece, the lighting dimmed, leaving a single spotlight on Ueno, strategically seated up in the gallery behind the chorus.

He played standing, producing a deep otherworldly timbre that was thick with vibrato, and with amplification resembled a muezzin’s call to prayer. Although the music was mostly pentatonic, his technique enabled an easy segueing and transitioning into various pitches. His range was amazingly wide, and none of the works was made to sound monotonous.

Ueno’s own Winter Moon was chant-like and meditative, contrasted with the percussive interjections that distinguished Yamamoto Hozan’s Kan Otsu. In an improvisation of Tanabe Shozan’s At Times Of Quiet, a requiem for earthquake and tsunami victims, the skilful use of tremolos simulated a semblance of harmony.

The choir astutely programmed two short pieces by contemporary Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski, Memento Mei, Domine and Ave Maria. Tonally based and strongly influenced by early music, these nevertheless explored dissonances that spiced up and piqued the senses. Inserted between these was O Vos Omnes by 16th century Carlo Gesualdo (also notorious as a wife-killer), which unsettled with startlingly modern harmonic shifts, a touch of programming genius.

The Zen master quietly leaves but not before taking a couple of ceremonial bows (top right).

After completing Nakao Tozan’s Iwashimizu (Chapter II), which was rhapsodic and moving, Ueno quietly took his leave with two low ceremonial bows as the choir completed its programme with music by John Sheppard and the earliest composer of the lot, Jean Mouton. For the sheer beauty of the music, performed with utter conviction by all on stage and presented with TPCC’s usual high standards (not to mention excellent booklet notes), this has to be one of the best concerts of the year, without a doubt.

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