Monday 26 January 2015

JOY! / Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra / Review

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
& Joy Chorale
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (25 January 2015)

Joy! is a community project by the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) and its Music Director Adrian Tan to bring people unfamiliar with classical music into the concert hall, not just as a member of the audience but also as performers. In December 2013, the BHSO had great success in Sing Messiah!, which was essentially a DIY Handel Messiah performance with a chorus formed by total beginners who learnt their parts from scratch, augmenting a regular symphony chorus.  This time the same formula was applied to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with an even greater degree of success. 

About 45 singers, including a family with young children, were recruited and trained by Laura Abello and later Khor Ai Ming, choir mistress of the Vocal Associates Festival Chorus. Many of them were new to classical music and did not read musical notation. They formed Chorus 1 and were placed on the far left of the gallery (below). Joined by more experienced singers, the Joy Chorale was a respectable 180-strong group, which looked splendid in ethnic costumes and uniforms. Kimonos and kebayas alongside boy scout and girl guide outfits, men in songkoks, Pavarotti wannabes, would-be Carmens, Patricia Teng as herself, and professors of gynaecology dressed as Santa Claus (SG colours as well) were just part of the vocal ensemble which emphasised the “brotherhood of man”, the central theme of Beethoven and Schiller's Ode To Joy.

The smiling faces of Chorus 1,
comprising completely of newbies.

Conductor Adrian Tan reprised his role as emcee, talking to the audience about the works, and reassuring them that it was alright to clap between movements of the symphony. They obliged, of course, but were impeccably behaved throughout. It was clear that the sold-out crowd wanted to be there, and treated the event with utmost respect and courtesy.

The first work was local jazz legend Jeremy Monteiro's Overture in C – The Story of Singapore, a short work that encapsulated the history of the nation post-1819 within just 4 minutes of music. Two trumpets announced the arrival of the British (Raffles and Co.), in a style not unlike Copland (who was American), and greeted by the kompangs from the Orkestra Melayu Singapura. Soon, the drone of warplanes and a brusquely Oriental motif signalled the intrusion and occupation by the Japanese, all leading up to the work's big melody, which was Monteiro's much-loved National Day Parade song One People, One Nation, One Singapore. He did not overdo it a la Beethoven, but one got the hint. This is one work whose themes may be further developed into a symphonic poem. So what about it for SG50, Jeremy?

The first second of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not promising, as the drone of the brass was off key, but immediately corrected itself before the entry of the strings. Conductor Tan did not adopt an overly brisk tempo, but a comfortable one which suited the mostly amateur players well. Yet the paced never dragged nor did he allow the spirit to flag. This sustained the dramatic first movement with enough tension, setting up the ensuing Scherzo which was arguably even better. The tempo and temperature was upped considerably, yet the forces rallied steadfastly without sacrificing accuracy in cues or prestidigitation. The excellent and ever-steady timpanist Victor Wong was central to this movement's success.

The Adagio could have been made to sound interminable but Tan kept it on tight rein throughout, to the point it could even be considered short-winded. The opening statement was judged to perfection, and the strings were a joy to behold in the slow movement's lingering melody. Since when did the BHSO have it in them to play with such beauty and finesse? Having heard the ensemble from its rough and ready earlier days, its progress over the last few years have been nothing but totally encouraging, perhaps also buoyed by the general overall quantum leaps made by all the non-professional musical outfits in Singapore. Soon we'll have a city-state of marvellous orchestras, something to dream about in SG50. Back to the Beethoven, the Adagio unfolded with magisterial pace and breath, reaching ecstatic climaxes that were carefully and expectantly built-up.

And so the choral finale. Leading to this, the audience listened with remarkable silence, patience and restraint, applauding between movements not so much out of total ignorance but because Maestro Tan permitted it. The many children were also rapt in attention, as with the whole corpus of listeners awaiting the big moment to arrive.

There were smiles when the Joy motif was heard for the first time from the low strings and the Presto section erupted with a vehemence that demanded a response. If there were a weak link in the performance, that would be the soloists who were probably volunteers anyway. The opening vocal pronouncement O Freude, nicht diese töne from Kong Lingyi was somewhat disappointing. He is more baritone than bass, and his words did not carry much weight nor did it carry far. Tenor Raymond Lee was better in the Turkish march segment, but was no Lim Shieh Yih (bless his soul, who sang in the very first Esplanade Beethoven 9 in October 2002) in terms of projection and sheer heroism. The soprano Wendy Woon and mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bains (only 15 years old) had smallish voices, but blended nicely within the quartet.

The chorus was close to magnificent, arriving on cue with great spirit and fervour. Eyes were cast on Chorus 1 which had no prior experience but sang as if their lives were on the line, and this included the family of boy-scouts led by the father. They were spared the intricacies of the fugal chorus, which the balance of the Joy Chorale took up with much zeal. They had been well drilled by Khor Ai Ming. The orchestra marched on without faltering, and its own fugal segment provided one of the most thrilling moments of the concert.

Whether one was listening to this symphony for the first time or the thousandth time, one would not have missed the magnificent effort, sheer passion and commitment of all the performers on stage. This performance not just reinforced the joy of brotherhood or humanity, but the joy of making music itself. That itself is a priceless commodity, one which the three concerts of Beethoven 9 by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in March will be hard-pressed to replicate.     

Note: My sincere thanks go to Professor Maurine Tsakok for additional information on the Joy Chorale.

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