Wednesday, 9 January 2019

THE SEASONS OF LOVE / Red Dot Baroque / Review

Red Dot Baroque
Sunday (6 January 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 January 2019 with the title "Baroque showcase with never a dull moment".

Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s first professional baroque ensemble, made its debut last August at the Esplanade Recital Studio. That quiet but momentous event seemed like a soft launch in comparison to this concert at a capacity-filled Chijmes Hall. Here, it was unveiled as the ensemble-in-residence of Sing’Baroque, a newly formed academy founded by Frenchman Arnaud de Fontgalland (below) to promote the pursuit and appreciation of baroque music in Singapore.

The 12-member ensemble led by home-grown violinist Alan Choo gave a 90-minute concert performed without intermission. The usual suspects of Bach and Handel were given a wide berth. Instead the excellently-curated programme of less familiar works chose to showcase myriad moods captured in the seasons within different lands of 17th and 18th century Europe.  

The evening opened with Belgian soprano Lilith Verhelst singing Henry Purcell’s Music For A While, her pristine voice illuminating the nave in a procession from the back of the hall. The ensemble accompanying her then proceeding into Part III of Heinrich Biber’s Mensa Sonora, a suite of short dances. The music was intimate and lithe, lifted by feather-light textures, alternating between fast and slow movements.

Verhelst would sing three more songs, in French (by Michel Lambert) and Italian (Barbara Strozzi and Girolamo Frecobaldi), expressing melancholy and sorrow typified by the baroque lament before finally exulting in an outburst of joy. The instrumental music paired with the songs echoed these diverse moods, providing the much needed contrasts for the concert. There was never a dull moment.

In the French segment, Francois Couperin’s La Fran├žoise (from Les Nations) which featured flute (Rachel Ho), viola da gamba (Mervyn Lee), theorbo (Christopher Johann Clarke on a long-necked lute) and harpsichord (Gerald Lim) alternated between the subdued and cheerful. Then the stage was cleared for  Tan Qin Ying’s dainty dance steps in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Chaconne de Phaeton, a series of short instrumental variations.

Ornamentation and the art of improvisation was a quintessential baroque art, and opportunities were found in Giovanni Fontana’s Sonata Settima for Choo on violin and Lim on harpsichord. There were some decidedly modern and un-baroque flourishes in the latter’s keyboard display but the adventurous spirit of the baroque was certainly on target.

The only concession to familiarity was Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons. The sonnet (penned by Vivaldi himself) that inspired the concerto was read before the performance, which saw Choo in his element for its virtuosic solo part. His was an animated stage personality equalled by perfect intonation and the sheer ease and natural way of his bowing.

This drew the loudest and longest applause, which was repeated after Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaconna segueing into Frescobaldi’s Se l’aura spira (If The Breeze Blows) with Verhelst taking centrestage. So joyous was the reception that the last song was encored to marvellous effect. Sing’Baroque has gotten off to a most auspicious start. 

All the performers (L to R):
Lilith Verhelst, Gabriel Lee (violin), Chen Zhangyi (viola),
Tan Qin Ying (harpsichord/dance), Mervyn Lee (gamba/guitar),
Alan Choo, Leslie Tan (cello), Christopher Johann Clarke,
Edmund Song (bass), Gerald Lim, Rachel Ho & Brenda Koh (violin).
The historic CHIJMES by night.

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