26 March 2018

The Best Choir in Singapore

Which is the best choir in Singapore?

That’s probably an impossible question to answer; and an unwise one too.  Choirs here have such passionate supporters that no amount of compelling impartial evidence could (or should) dissuade them from their belief in their choir’s claim to supreme excellence.  There are also so many choirs in Singapore that it is just about impossible to find a level playing field on which to assess them fairly.  There are choirs which perform weekly, choirs which come together just to give one or two performances a year, choirs which exist purely to compete with other choirs, and choirs which sing for the joy of singing and never wish to be exposed to public scrutiny.

There will certainly be those who claim that competition success is conclusive evidence of choral excellence.  But you only need to read the vitriolic outpourings about the recent Singapore International Violin Competition submitted to my colleague Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog to know that, outside the small circle of those directly involved, competitions in music are universally despised and discredited.  And since choir competitions in particular have minimal relation to genuine, artistically-driven music-making, I think we can discount competitive success as an indicator of excellence.

In the field of orchestral playing, it is easy to point to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and say they are the best orchestra in Singapore.  There are other orchestras who can put up a one-off performance every bit as good, if not better, but there are no other orchestras in Singapore who put up a good performance on a weekly basis encompassing such a wide repertory, and do it consistently well.  Even if an average SSO performance does not excite or thrill, the very consistency of their playing over a demanding annual round of public concerts puts them head and shoulders above any other orchestra in the country.

Adopting those yardsticks for choirs, we can discount those which put on one or two big performances a year, which assemble for occasional showpiece events or which restrict their singing to a narrow band of repertory.  That rules just about every Singapore choir out of contention, leaving merely a handful of school, college and church choirs to be assessed as “the best”.  And since most school and college choirs in Singapore have a single-minded focus on competing, their interests lie outside the world of legitimate music-making and do not stand comparison with those whose job it is to make music for the public to enjoy on a regular basis.    

Some years ago, after having heard me for the umpteenth time bemoan the parlous state of choral singing in Singapore, one of my students told me that I should go and hear her church choir as they were “brilliant”.  I duly went, and she was right; they sang very well.  The trouble was their repertory was confined to cheap and cheerful “worship songs”, where words and music are so formulaic and bland that a troupe of tone-deaf baboons could master it without much difficulty.  Searching for the ideal choir, I visited a few other churches and found oodles of enthusiasm amongst choir members but a complete absence of musical variety or challenge in what they were singing.

Then, a year ago, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd reopened after a prolonged restoration.  We have family connections with the Cathedral – my late father-in-law was an altar server there before the Second World War.  My wife insisted that I went along and report back to her, and I duly attended the magnificent opening festivities. More than anything else I was hugely impressed by the choral singing of the Choir of the Risen Christ under director Peter Low and the music so effortlessly supported by organist Alphonsus Chern, which seemed far better than anything I had heard up to that point in Singapore.  Assuming it was a one-off, a special effort put in for the big celebrations, I decided to go again in subsequent weeks, and to this day I have not heard that choir put in a performance which was not unfailingly good. 

More than that, unlike every other church choir I have heard in Singapore, as a matter of course it performs a vast repertory, ranging from medieval plainchant, through Renaissance polyphony, and French impressionism, to Victorian hymnody and bland American-style “Worship Song”.  I may not always like the music they sing, but I always find it beautifully presented, carefully prepared and professionally delivered.  In the course of the year I would reckon they perform over 60 times, and cover a repertory well in excess of 200 different items – which puts them even ahead of the SSO. 

But over this past weekend they did something which raised them in my eyes to a class of their own and proved to me beyond any doubt that they are a choir with a consummately professional attitude and standard.  They gave a one-off concert which lasted well over 2 hours and which was in addition to their heavy schedule as part of the cathedral’s usual pattern of choral worship.

Most choirs can put on a concert of 2 hours’ duration, but few of these actually involve the choir singing for the entire time.  A Passion presentation usually has intervals and soloists, instrumental and spoken interjections affording plenty of opportunity for the choir to sit down and give their voices a rest.  Not so this one.  The first half comprised over an hour’s worth of uninterrupted choral singing, while the second half went even further and offered a staged choral performance complete with costumes, choreographed actions and props.

For the first half, the music flowed seamlessly from medieval plainchant, through Palestrina, Handel and Duruflé, to examples of the dreaded “Worship Song” and the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana.  Yet whether I liked the music or not – personal highlights were a divine performance of Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas and a perfectly poised Palestrina’s Adoramus Te – it was all delivered with flawless musical and technical assurance.  Whatever the music called for – be it the overblown mock-passion of The Holy City or the crisply articulated runs in Lift up your heads, O ye Gates – the choir delivered it with stylistic authority and conviction.  And while my artistic sensitivities were seriously battered and bruised by the sometimes incongruous juxtapositions – an astonishingly good performance of the sublime Allegri’s Miserere Mei which not only soared to the height with unerring security but was sung antiphonally from one end of the cathedral to the other, segued horrendously easily into the turgid and inexplicably popular Old Rugged Cross  – I have to confess it worked so well because the choir sang everything with the same level of involvement, musicianship and technical fluency.  Under the dominant command of their powerfully committed conductor, Peter Low, they maintained a consistent level of technical and musical authority which one would expect only from the most accomplished professionals.

The programme told us that the Cantata The Crib, the Cross, the Crown – an assemblage of various musical ideas ranging from David T Clydesdale to Karl Jenkins – gets presented just once every eight years.  I can see that the sheer logistics involved would be a nightmare which nobody would willing submit themselves to any more frequently than that, but with performances so infrequent, the choir is effectively learning it from scratch each time.  That being the case, they not only had the thing off perfectly, performing it flawlessly from memory, but showed a quality of performance in their actions, dramatic delivery and fluent choreography which, once again, is the preserve only of the most accomplished professional.

And the most extraordinary thing about this was that, even after two hours’ ceaseless singing, the choir sounded as fresh and full voiced as they had at the very start.  Those matters which sort the wheat from the chaff – tuning, intonation, breath control, balance, diction – never wavered from the high standards they had set themselves at the start.  And if it was remarkable that they were still sounding as fresh at 10.15pm on Saturday night as their performance drew to a close (rounded off by Chern’s magnificent solo performance of Bach’s Prelude on Valet will ich dir geben which most people missed because it was given while the applause for the choir was still raging) even more astonishing was the fact that they were all back the following morning to perform a whole different range of varied music for their usual musically demanding Sunday morning mass.

Speaking at the end of the concert, the cathedral’s Rector, Monseigneur Philip Heng, stated that this must be “the best choir in Singapore”.  The priesthood is notoriously resilient to the charms of good church music and dedicated church musicians, so such a statement from a priest is not to be taken lightly.  I for one, cannot do anything but agree with him.


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