09 April 2018

Contest or Concert?

In a recent post I suggested that many choirs in Singapore only performed a couple of times a year and many put their entire energies into competitions.  Of course, the concept of choirs performing just a couple of times a year is by no means unique to Singapore, and obviously choirs in other countries focus their energies on competitions, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many international competitions to which Singapore choirs can jet away so frequently.  But in Singapore this leads to a widespread misconception that big concerts put on occasionally and competition success represents the pinnacle of choral achievement.  This was very much highlighted by a choral concert held here over the weekend.

The Singapore Bible College Community Choir Canticorum boasts a singularly clumsy name.  At least they haven’t resorted to reducing it to a meaningless set of initials, an endemic habit in Singapore which, clearly out of admiration for Middle Eastern terrorist organisations (think ISIS, think ISIL, think PLF), tries to disguise an organisation’s origins and allegiances.  Even the most elevated Singapore institutions reduce themselves to edited highlights from the alphabet. (Few people in Singapore can tell you what YSTCM stands for, and fewer still realise that the initials are derived from a magnanimous and generous Malaysian piano teacher who, quite literally, gave her life to ensure music students had a world-class education.) Such a clumsy name, however, would certainly go were the Singapore Bible College Community Choir Canticorum to give frequent public concerts.  But, as was pointed out in the concert programme booklet, “the choir holds only two main presentations every concert season”.  So giving concerts to the public is clearly something of a novelty for them.

And it showed.

Not, I hasten to add, in any sense of unease or nervousness – far from it – but in the fact that this concert (which we must assume was one of the two in this year’s quota) was clearly the result of weeks, if not months, of hard and vigorous rehearsal.  While regular concert-giving choirs leave something to the performance itself, to help generate that indefinable frisson which characterises a live performance, here every little detail had been immaculately prepared.  From the military-grade walking on and walking off and collective standing up, to the musical matters of pitching, balancing, diction and blending, the overriding impression was of something which had been so thoroughly prepared that it was inconceivable that anything should go wrong on the day.  Rather like a coiffeur coated in lacquer and Brylcreme (or whatever pomade people in Singapore coat their hair with in order to grease the inside of bus windows as their heads, too burdened down by hair products, lean against them to ease the strain on over-taxed neck muscles), this performance had been so coated in its preparation that it seemed almost unnaturally perfect.  Any half-decent music student could have used the performance as a dictation exercise and come away with an almost exact replica of the published score. 

In short, there was nothing wrong.  But there was nothing right either. 

Utter faithfulness to the score may impress adjudicators and help win competitions, but it does not impress audiences or win hearts.  Doing what the score tells you to do, and nothing else, is not a performance; it is merely a reproduction of a text unburdened by interpretation or individuality.  Any performance should be a one-off, unique occasion, vividly affected by the circumstances of the place, the time, the audience and the atmosphere.  It should not be a carbon copy of the last few rehearsals, with everything exactly as it was prepared.

Choirs which perform infrequently invariably fall into this trap – performing in public is such a rare treat that they spend weeks preparing every detail so that nothing will go wrong on the day.  Choirs who perform on a regular basis may not sound so polished or precise, but they know that an interpretation is a living, breathing entity which exists only for a moment and is then lost forever, and they go all out to make that moment memorable.  They get used to the idea of the ephemeral, and they work to it, allowing their collective knowledge both of the score and of the act of performance, to get them through where less experienced choirs rely wholly on the work done in rehearsals.

I have to admit I do not particularly like Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, the work which opened this choir’s programme.  I have known the work since 1965, when I was humble treble in a choir, and I have sung in it, played in it and conducted it probably a dozen times since.  I must have also attended twice that number of performances and heard probably all the commercial recordings that have ever been made of it.  I find it has moments of beauty and charm, and each time I hear it I hope it will click with me; that the interpretation offered will have found something in the spirit of the music which I have so far missed.  What I really do not want is a perfect reproduction of the published score – I can find that any time I want just by picking it up and reading it.   

The choral singing was technically exemplary, there was a superbly accomplished and confident treble soloist (sadly billed as a “boy soprano”, giving poor old Mikey Robinson something of an identity crisis – we may live in an age of gender fluidity, but a soprano is still a female, and a boy is still a treble – and Bernstein specified a treble for the part), and while the harp (Katryna Tan), percussion (Lim Ming Keh) and organ (Margaret Chen) often went their own way because the conductor’s total focus on the choir meant that the instrumentalists had to fend for themselves, there were no major disasters and the whole thing passed off without incident or anything untoward interrupting the flow.

Conductor Joel Navarro seemed to have prepared his singers to competition rather than concert readiness.  That competitions are high on his list of priorities was obvious from the biography he had written for the programme book.  It stressed that he had not only won quite a lot himself but had, as a teacher, encouraged his students to lead “their own church, community and university choirs to top prizes in international competitions”. 

(What business church choirs have in participating in competitions is a moot point.  My feeling is that church choirs should devote all their energies into the perfection of their week-by-week duties in their own churches, not in going out and taking part in competitions – or concerts, for that matter.  But I can accept that some church choirs find their duties at home irksome and look elsewhere for musical gratification.)

Navarro would have certainly won any competition with the choir he fielded in this concert.  After the Bernstein he led them through an equally accurate and highly polished account of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs.  I have had a lifetime's deep relationship with this work - even longer than I have with the Chichester Psalms - and unlike the Chichester Psalms, I am passionately fond of it.  Again I have sung it, conducted it and played the organ in it more times than I care to remember.  I have even battled with playing the orchestral reduction on a tiny two manual organ with no playing aids, which is no easy feat.  Margaret Chen had to do this, and I have nothing but the highest admiration for the way she managed it.  She had a pair of assistants helping her, but one of these, unfortunately, was masking Chen’s view of the solo baritone, which meant that Navarro, who in any case seemed anxious to take total control of the whole thing, was obliged to conduct from the front of the stage as Chen and baritone Eudenice Palaruan performed together in close physical proximity in the elevated organ gallery.  This was probably important in keeping it all together, but lent the whole thing a certain detached and impersonal feel, which ran contrary to the spirit of the music.  Again the choral contributions were flawless and Palaruan’s singing excellent – easily projecting from the back of the stage despite the problems of being positioned right by the organ pipes.  But beyond being an exact representation of the score, this performance lacked spirit, personality or true humanity.  It was really too flawless to be real, much as a carefully-moulded glass-fibre tiger can never really set our hearts racing in the way that a flea-bitten, bedraggled, gap-toothed but very real live one would.

Most of the capacity audience was clearly there to support various people on stage, and while they applauded their various heroes generously, as soon as the objects of their admiration left the stage, the applause died; the music itself, it seemed, had made no impact on them, even if the musicians had.  This concert showed more than anything else that performances which have been prepared to competition-standards can never really have the same impact on an audience as one designed to communicate with non-specialist listeners.

Until such time as Singapore choirs realise that competitions and concerts are not the same thing, the choral scene in Singapore is destined to remain artistically sterile.



  1. Well said. And it is not just the choral scene. Competitions not just in Singapore but across the world, whatever their original intention, seem to turn music from an art into a sport. And while the aim may have been for performers to raise their standards to the very highest, instead they just seem to encourage (some) judges to lower their ethics.

  2. I agree with anonymous. More and more choral associations and societies are organising competition-centric festivals whereas the focus should really be curating good programmes from choirs around the world and providing public education opportunities for professionals and amateurs.

  3. Dear Dr Marc,

    I read your review of our performance in earnest. Thank you for taking time to watch our performance and writing copiously about it.

    I regret that you thought consequential that which was inconsequential to us—our lack of performance mileage and seasoning, our clunky name, the unfortunate description of Mikey Robinson as a boy soprano, and the meaningless perfection of our sound which was smelted out of the competitive fire its misguided conductor breathed into his poor choir. How dreadful it must have been for you to hear your beloved R.W. Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs” sung without the spirit you wanted and were used to.

    It was different spirit the audience was moved by. We regret that you were not able to appreciate the performance as a deep worshipful experience many of us on stage and in the hall shared. As for the Bernstein work, I hope someday you would give another chance and view it from the lenses of compositional language, imagery, thematic juxtaposition, and linguistic syntax. Scott M. Finch’s dissertation on ”The Prominence of Hebrew Syntax in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms”, University of Arizona (2011)*, was enriching for me as I prepared the choir to sing beyond the music and into the anima of the work itself. If the choir didn’t show it enough in their faces—an Asian modesty or an influence of its colonizers, who knows—they certainly felt it deep down in their soul.

    I read some of your reviews and share your observation that Singapore is full of surprises, notwithstanding its fair share of pretentious conductors and self-indulgent reviewers who, some advise, are best ignored, I’d like to believe they are not beyond redemption.


    Dr Joel