Monday, 13 July 2015

MAHLER 8: A GIFT TO THE ENTIRE NATION / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday & Saturday (10 & 11 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 July 2015 with the title "Grand celebration of a labour of love".

The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) raised collective eyebrows back in 2010, when the group of talented youngsters led by conductor Chan Tze Law performed Gustav Mahler's First and Second Symphonies to much acclaim. At that time, they had already set their eyes on the ultimate prize - Mahler's Eighth, also known as the Symphony of a Thousand – to be performed in 2015, coinciding with Singapore's 50th year of independance.

The years passed like a flash, and what seemed like wishful thinking then became reality as symphonic music's Mount Everest was finally scaled, twice on two glorious evenings. It was not so much as conquered, but celebrated like a labour of love that only dedicated and true music-lovers know how.

This was a joint effort by 133 instrumentalists, 8 international vocal soloists and choirs from Singapore (Vocal Associates Festival Chorus & Children's Chorus) and Australia (Perth Symphonic Chorus, Queensland Festival Chorus and The Winthrop Singers) totalling just over 200 singers, presented by HSBC, which prides itself as the “world's local bank”.  

The 80-minute long epic is in two parts, the first based on the 9th century Pentecostal hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) and the second a setting of the Final Scene from Goethe's Faust. Like a modern projection of Beethoven's Ode To Joy, Mahler's vision of the “Gift to the entire nation” was the universality of redemption through love and repentance as espoused in Holy Scripture, as well as a personal love message to his wife Alma. 

Massive opening chords from organist Joanna Paul and the explosive entry of the choruses signalled this was going to be an energetically charged account, buoyed by greatest of convictions and sheerest courage. There cannot be more than a handful of musicians or singers this evening who have performed the work before, but they were in the surest of hands, as conductor Chan was as steady as he was meticulously prepared.

The choral entries in the complex contrapuntal Veni, Creator Spiritus were spot on in delivery, and their impact was matched by the orchestra's incisive yet sensitive contributions. The music struck a delicate balance between words and notes, and rarely was one side dominant over the other for long.  Its relatively short 24 minutes blazed like a sizzling meteor.

The soloists came to the fore in the twice-as-long and more operatic Second Part, opening with baritone Warwick Fyfe's Pater Ecstaticus, bass Joshua Bloom's Pater Profundus and tenor Dongwon Shin's Doctor Marianus. All three were excellent, and there was little separating sopranos Hyon Lee and Ariya Sawadivong, and altos Deborah Humble and Songmi Yang, all of whom represented fallen biblical women seeking ultimate redemption.

The sole Singaporean soloist was soprano Janani Sridhar (a past HSBC Youth Excellence Award winner) as Mater Gloriosa, perched high up in the organ loft with her two short crowning lines, Komm, Hebe Dich Zu Höhern Sphären (Come, Rise Up To Higher Spheres), offering the hope of eternal salvation.   

Shock and awe, to be expected in a Mahler score, was a given but what impressed most from these performances was to be found in its multi-layered nuances. The slow extended orchestral build up in the Second Part was gripping in its expectancy, and there was a very quiet section with just organ, violins and two harps which had the spell of the magical. Concertmaster Chan Yoong Han's many violin solos were objects of beauty amid the rough-hewn soundscape, and the children's voices (trained by Khor Ai Ming) were a total joy.

All these and the final Chorus Mysticus (All That Passes Away Is But A Reflection) which swelled inexorably to a voluminous crescendo which only Esplanade Concert Hall could contain were the stuff of spine-tingling and goosebump-inducing climaxes.

The second performance on Saturday bettered the already impressive effort of the night before, as all the performers had the vast benefit of prior wisdoms. For the listener, the details became better defined and the realisation of the final minutes – a tantalising glimpse of Heaven itself – was an overwhelmingly visceral experience. There cannot have been few unmoved hearts and dry eyes at the end of the journey. 

What could possibly follow that celestial conclusion? The two final gifts to the entire audience began with Bernard Tan's orchestrations of the City Council Song by Zubir Said, which with the editing of eight bars became Majulah Singapura, the National Anthem. By now the chorus of singers had multiplied to over a thousand, and standing ovations were guaranteed. It seemed that Mahler's overriding ambition and SG50 were made for each other.   

All photographs by the kind permission of the Orchestra of the Music Makers.

No comments: