Monday, 1 April 2013

BLACK & WHITE / SYC Ensemble Singers / Review

SYC Ensemble Singers
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (30 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 April 2013 with the title "Songs profane and sacred".

Choral conductor Jennifer Tham (left) was deservedly awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2012 for a life’s work in the field of music. The fruits of her passion is the SYC Ensemble Singers (formerly the Singapore Youth Choir), which she first conducted in 1986 and has led to a long string of artistic successes. Their strengths lie in an unstinting commitment to new music, including those by Singaporean composers, and continually redefining the a cappella choral repertoire.

A sizeable audience attended this 90-minute concert with a contrasted programme that dichotomised, as its title suggested, darkness and light, despair and hope, death and life, and profane and sacred. Its first half was dedicated to music set to biblical or liturgical texts, with age-old medieval vocal traditions updated to confront present times.

Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Unicornis Captivatur (right) began with plainchant, and then embraced polyphony in a madrigal-like setting which was essentially a celebration of the Easter season. Life trumps death in the Alleluia refrain, with its allegory of dying lamb and victorious lion. The choir immediately made its mark with its confidence and well-disciplined entries.

Although there were some intonation problems in Lorenzo Donati’s Lamento di Cecilia, the feel good factor continued into Mikko Heinio’s Luceat (left). Using passages from the Requiem mass, the work juxtaposed the breathy sound of exhalations with intoned words that sought the peace of eternal rest. The singing in high registers was excellent, and its heady climax showed that its emphasis was on illumination rather than the spectre of death.

The harmonic austerity of Antonio Russo’s Beati Quorum was brought in sharp contrast with Singaporean Kelly Tang’s The Angel (right), the latter a setting of William Blake’s texts. Simple and succinct, the all-women’s voices shone in this exquisitely beautiful and serene meditation about ageing.

A mark of a true leader is in grooming the next generation, and Tham provided opportunities for her two young assistants to conduct the choir. Chong Wai Lun led in Peteris Vasks’s Ziles Zina (The Tomtit’s Message, left) which harnessed disparate influences and styles, which included long portamenti (slides) and passages of aleatory or random utterances.

Choy Siew Woon ably helmed in four pieces of Suite de Lorca by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Bo Holten’s Hermit Peak (right), with its broad bold harmonies. It was Tham who had the last say, closing the concert with the Dane Holten’s First Snow, which began with a wordless sequence of cascading tones and despite its cold subject matter, later generated a good deal of warmth.

The choir’s encore, the gospel hymn-like Angel by Sarah McLachlan, showcased lovely unison singing and sent the audience home happy.  

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