Wednesday 18 January 2017

EVENSONGS / Vox Camerata / Review

Vox Camerata
Yong Musicians Foundation Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (17 January 2017)

The first choral concert of the year was given by Vox Camerata, a choir founded by Mohamed Shahril bin Mohamed Salleh which has a distinction of programming serious choral repertoire yet without subjecting its members to a formal audition. This open-handed and egalitarian approach, characterised by a total absence of snobbery, has been rewarded by seriously good performances in venues as diverse as the Armenian Church, School of the Arts and The Arts House.

Its Esplanade Concert Hall debut was backed by an orchestra, no less than the young and very promising The Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra. The concert opened without voices, in Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal's Cave, conducted by Ignatius Wang. The evenness of the playing was remarkable, led by very good strings (with ex-SSO veteran violinist Lim Shue Churn as concertmaster), and as the work progressed, a very fine woodwind section with an excellent clarinet principal. If the slow opening pages sounded little soporific in pace, it soon built up a head of steam. This was a performance of polish, if not one of raw passion and a little wildness. That would come with some more experience.

The chorus of Vox Camerata, joined by guests from the Anderson Junior College Alumni Choir and German Protestant Church Choir, had their say in Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs with baritone Brent Allcock as soloist, and conducted by Alvin Seville Arumugam. Using the poems of George Herbert, the music relived the English pastoral tradition which the New Zealander Allcock was totally at home with. His is a warm and reassuring voice that sounded gorgeous in the opening Easter, with the words “Rise, heart. Thy Lord is risen”, echoed with deep resonance from the chorus. This set the tone, further lit up with I Got Me Flowers, gently accompanied by harp and strings, and Love Bade Me Welcome, with subtle woodwind contributions and the chorus joining in later with fine and discreet unison humming.

Credit has to go to conductor Arumugam for his command of the orchestra, which was always sensitive to the voices, and never threatened to overwhelm. The transparency of the strings and  sublime woodwind solos were true to the music's gentle spirit. The Call was for a short but moving baritone solo, followed by the final song Antiphon, perhaps the most exciting for the chorus, which proclaimed “Let the world in every corner sing”, and meaning every word of it. Vaughan Williams is not often performed in Singapore, so this was indeed a real treat.

The strings remained onstage, joined by pianist Ong Seng Choo to accompany the choir in Gabriel Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine, which was conducted by Ignatius Wang. This short work breathes the same ethereal air as the French composer's Requiem, that is it sounds otherwordly. The men's voices that opened sounded uneven, with the volume weighted to the lower registers, but that soon leavened with the entry of the women. The strained voices sounded exposed here but the spirit with which the music was sung made up for this shortcoming.

It was laudable that in order to save trees, no programme booklets were printed for the concert, with all programme information and notes made available in a downloadable soft copy. The price to pay was that the audience applauded after every single movement, and that trend continued well into the second half.

The excellent orchestra was dispensed with in John Rutter's Magnificat, which was conducted by Vox Camerata Chorusmaster Shahril himself with Ong again on piano accompaniment. In this larger scale work, the chorus occupying centrestage under the acoustic canopy seemed overmatched by the venue, and some parts sounded thin as a result. A choir double its size would have been preferable, but make no mistake, it still brought out a gutsy and committed performance, full of heart and feeling.

The syncopated opening Magnificat was well-delivered, with a keen mastery of its tricky rhythms. Rutter's very tonal and highly approachable music risks sounding saccharine, so the chorus avoided over sentimentality in the slower movements. The 2nd movement, Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose, was poetically sung, contrasted with pomp and ceremony of Quia fecit mihi magna. Guest soprano Akiko Otao was a standout, her lovely voice wafted clearly over the chorus in Et Misericordia and Esurientes. If one wondered what an angel sounds like, this would be a pretty close approximation. There was a jazzy choral fugue in Fecit potentiam which was unfortunately not further elaborated by the composer, but the final Gloria patria recapped the opening's high spirits and the concert closed on a celebratory high.

The audience clearly enjoyed the music and effort put in the performance, and the applause showed it. Thus it was a pity that the performers chose to leave the stage at the very first opportunity, which curtailed any further plaudits. So there were no curtain calls at all! Here amateur musicians could take a leaf from their professional counterparts by staying onstage for a longer duration, and milk the applause for themselves and their collaborators what it is worth. This would be a lesson for future concert opportunities: You put in the hard work, so you deserve all the credit!   

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