15 April 2017

A Secret Stabat Mater


In that weird, mixed-up, disjointed way in which Singapore manages its classical music events, there was another concert in Victoria Concert Hall last night (Friday) billed as “Stabat Mater”.  It followed hot on the heels of last Friday’s, and for those people who knew of the second concert, it seemed as if it was simply a re-run of the first; a couple of regular concert-goers told me they had “already been” when I asked them if they were going last night.  Unless you were observant and knowledgeable, there seemed no clear distinction between the two.

Of course, hardly anyone knew about the second.  Dismally publicized, the organisers sent a round-robin email a matter of days before the concert, by which time most people would have already organised their weekend schedules.  Luckily, I had spotted a notice about this concert when I had attended last Friday’s, and manfully negotiated the almost impossible task of procuring a ticket from Singapore’s appallingly monopolistic and hideously obstructive ticketing agency.

I was certainly not the only person in the audience.  In fact it was very heavily attended.  But the majority of the audience was students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts whose orchestra and choir were performing and who had, I assume, been given the tip-off about the concert long before it had been grudgingly brought to the notice of the general public.  That most of the audience comprised students was obvious by the fact that those of us who were not, felt we were intruding on some kind of internal party in which what went on onstage was peripheral to the comprehensive texting, selfies and chatter of the audience.  I sat by one particularly obnoxious example of studenthood – a diminutive girl wearing a white baseball cap pulled down over her eyes, a scarf pulled up over her nose, who spent the entire concert texting, giggling and turning around to whoever it was she was texting to make gestures. 

Badly behaved audience apart (I assume Nanyang – in common with almost every other tertiary musical institution - never teaches its students how to listen to music; train them to be manufacturers but not consumers is the policy when it comes to music colleges) this was an outstanding concert.

Conductor - and Dean of the School of Music - Lim Yau assembled a huge student orchestra on stage.  It was so huge that it had, apparently, been obliged to cut down in size and some musical re-arranging made by in-house composers.  They launched into a magnificent account of the Overture to William Tell.  Gorgeous cello tone, beautifully poised basses, some delicious woodwind solos and a totally riveting final romp which showed a perfect mixture of discipline and raw excitement.  The comment in the programme notes that Rossini had been “inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony” in writing his Overture came as news to me, and I fear it is a claim which does not hold water; but it was very interesting idea which encouraged me, at least, to look afresh at this very familiar music.

Bartók’s rarely-heard Rhapsody No.1 for violin and orchestra showcased a superb young student violinist from Thailand, Nattawat Luantampol, who not only played the piece brilliantly, but seemed utterly at ease on stage, delivering a compelling and musically alert interpretation.  Tan Jie Qing added a strange Chinese/Hungarian colour with her excellent command of the Pedal Yangqin, taking the place of Bartók’s preferred Cimbalom, and the orchestral support was nothing short of magnificent. 

Before both halves of the concert, the oboe gave the orchestra a wide variety of A’s to choose from in tuning up, but somehow they all chose the same one, and there was impressive intonation conformity across the entire orchestra.  In fact, excellent internal tuning was one of the many impressive elements of the performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater which, in addition to plenty of exposed wind parts, involves quite a lot of unaccompanied choral singing – and this always stayed perfectly in tune.

I have had a great fondness for Rossini’s sacred music ever since first pedalling my way through the harmonium part of the Petite Messe Solennelle. The Stabat Mater is similarly operatic in character, wearing its religious devotion on its sleeve but not without a strong feeling of sincerity.  It was a work Rossini did not want to write, once written wanted to keep secret, and in the end fought legal battles to be allowed to complete and to bring out into the public domain; such is the off-stage drama which so often seems to surround Rossini’s music. Anyone performing it has to make the decision; do we play up the operatic or suppress it in order to convey the religious?

Lim Yau got it right (and how I wish last Friday’s loosely controlled quasi operatic attempt at Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had shown such interpretative maturity).  His choral forces – a huge choir very top heavy on paper but actually much more balanced in reality – was responsive, alert and confident.  This was a very fine example of massed choral singing. 

The four soloists, described by some of the most outrageously conceited biographies I have ever read, were of varied vocal quality. But all of them were well up the task of bringing across the music along the lines defined by Lim’s whole approach.  Soprano Lin Ching-Ju (she is, apparently, “world-renowned”) wobbled a bit too much for my taste, vibrating across so many notes in the pursuit of one that it was not easy to pick out a melodic line.  Jessica Chen (who “frequently receives invitations to perform with eminent companies and orchestras”) was a splendid contralto, rich and robust, spot on in pitch and diction, and utterly self-assured throughout.  Lin Chien-Chi (“a secret star”) was an ideal Italianate tenor, strutting his superficial passion, putting the top notes on to isolated pedestals and generally doing all the things which Rossini would have expected.  Firm and vocally precise, William Lim (who modestly devotes his biography to a long list of past performances which seems to include every bit of music ever written for the male voice) had a few projection problems and looked particularly strained and nervous, rarely taking the risk of raising his eyes from the score.

There were balance issues – as there always will be when so many musicians are crammed on to the stage of a concert hall not designed, acoustically, for such big sounds – but while Lim Yau was demonstrative in trying to keep his orchestra down, they did not seem to respond.  And, perhaps, this was a good thing.  For this was a concert designed to show off what was an outstanding orchestra and a brilliant choir – projecting soloists above this, for all its stylistic legitimacy, would have stifled the overall sense of involvement which was such a powerful element of this performance.

It would be wonderful to hear this again.  Before that, however, someone might like to give a few basic lessons in marketing and advertising to those who put on classical music events in Singapore.  How nice it would be to attend concerts by design rather than accident.

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