My musical background is firmly rooted in the English cathedral tradition of boys and men’s choirs accompanied by organ. To this day, when all other musical ensembles have become my daily bread and butter, it is that unique sound which remains my true musical and spiritual home. While I look back with a certain nostalgia to the great choirs of my youth – Guildford and later St. Paul’s cathedrals under the inspirational directorship of Barry Rose, one of the greatest of all choral directors – I still thrill to the sound when I get to hear it. Recent visits to the cathedrals at Truro and Gloucester satisfy me that this great tradition, despite opposition from the equality brigade who seem to think that choirs MUST have girls in them to be politically legitimate, is still very much alive and kicking.
And it’s not just England that celebrates this superlative musical ensemble. For the second time in as many years the boys and men of Norway’s Nidaros Cathedral took to the stage at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall for a sold-out concert of sacred music.
The Nidaros choir is far bigger than any English cathedral choir (even St Paul’s in its heyday), and the lavish programme book listed no less than 16 men and 31 boys. How many boys actually took to the stage at the start of the concert I cannot say, but by the time the first half had run its course, two of them had dropped out, victims of a punishing schedule which had seen them leave Norway, perform in Taiwan and move on to Singapore all within a matter of days. But perhaps the real reason for this outbreak of collapsing boys was not so much the travel schedule as the extraordinarily unsympathetic programme director Bjørn Moe had imposed on them. The two-hour concert saw the entire choral forces singing in every single item. Not even the most hard-core professional choral group would attempt such a feat of endurance without ever leaving the stage or sitting down once, and even those who stuck it out to the bitter end were showing very definite signs of fatigue. By the end of the concert, it looked and sounded as if the singers were on automatic pilot, unable to do anything more than fall back on their intensive training to push them across the finish line.
The absence of any respite for the singers was doubly inexcusable since they had on stage with them an excellent organist – Magne Harry Draagen - who could easily have offered a couple of solos to take the pressure off the singers (as he had done at their last Singapore outing). With the organ music of Norway’s own Egil Hovland hugely attractive but hardly ever heard in Singapore, this would have been a golden opportunity to do a little bit of national musical proselytizing. On top of that Singapore’s own Sarah Wong was there with her harp to fill up the interval for those who did not make a headlong dash to the bar. It was ridiculous to have such a talented player performing in the side-lines, when a harp solo or two embedded within the programme would not only have allowed more rest for the over-worked singers, but added a welcome new colour to the proceedings.
The first half of the programme was given over to 10 short pieces most of which, in one way or another, are natural territory for a cathedral choir, although spiced up by a particularly international flavour. There were Norwegian items, all sung with an easy familiarity in both language and musical idioms; Norge, Mitt Norge by Alfred Paulsen, Nidelven Stille og Vakker du er by Chris Christensen, O Jesus Krist, jeg flyr til deg by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and two new pieces by Henning Somerro, a setting of the Latin hymn Te Deum and the world premiere of Predicasti. A couple of English-language settings were also included; Howard Goodall’s popular theme music for the TV series The Vicar of Dibley which is actually a setting of the 23rd Psalm, and a setting of psalm 141 by the Russian Pavel Chesnokov, in which the absence of a properly weighty and resonant bass line was keenly felt. Avoiding kitsch by a hair’s breadth – saved by the choir’s unemotional style of delivery and Draagen’s dispassionate organ accompaniment – we had a potentially hideous amalgam of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata with the Greek words from the Catholic Mass, Kyrie eleison, which text appeared in a far more worthy and inspired setting by Louis Vierne. For my money, this extract from Vierne’s spectacular Messe Solennelle was the real high point of the first half, and while Draagen did a wonderful job of the sturdy organ accompaniment, how I wished I had been able to join him and present the work as it is supposed to be heard, accompanied by two separate organs spatially detached. The other French work in the first half, Fauré’s popular Cantique de Jean Racine raced by with little sense of character or colour. Indeed, the overriding feeling from the first half was that, while the choir is highly capable and makes a fine sound, it lacks the range of colours, tones and expressiveness we would expect in a concert setting; this sort of sound is fine in a liturgical context, but concert audiences need to have a little more to go on in order for the music to speak fully to them.
The choir had come on to the stage singing wordlessly and segued smoothly into the opening Predicasti. This seemed to catch the audience by surprise, and when it was all over they sat in stunned silence, unsure whether it was polite to applaud in the middle of a concert of church music. One can understand why Moe turned round and goaded everyone to clap (albeit somewhat embarrassedly) but he inadvertently was digging a grave for himself and his musicians. Having been goaded to applause, the audience thereafter took anything which vaguely resembled silence as a cue for sustained applause. Thus, every time the music stopped for a breath or, even, subsided to something very quiet, up rose a wave of applause which after a time became intensely irritating. What is wrong with Singapore audiences that they seem unable to listen intelligently to music? I am all in favour of spontaneous applause – I’m head of the queue when it comes to applauding between movements of symphonies and concertos - but if audiences would only make the effort to listen to music rather than merely let it wash past the ears, it’s pretty obvious when it has come to an end and when it is merely taking a breath. A simple glance at the stage will also show whether the conductor is poised to go on, whether the violinists have their bows ready for the next note and whether the singers have drawn their preliminary breaths. Here was a concert largely ruined by the ignorance and stupidity of an audience intent on causing maximum disruption for fearing of appearing to look uninterested.
It was in the second half of the concert that audience intervention was at its most destructive, with every section of the Dvořák Mass in D interrupted by unwonted applause. It disturbed the performers on stage to the extent that there were a couple of false starts and quite a lot of confusion, and it added a full five minutes at least to the playing time. Whether it was also the cause of a certain listlessness which impinged on to the choir as the work progressed, I cannot tell, but certainly the Mass seemed to fade away after a very encouraging start.
Dvořák’s Mass in D is a woefully underperformed work. Perhaps that’s because it is, at heart, an intimate and sincere work which does not easily lend itself to a concert setting. He wrote it in 1887 for the dedication of the chapel at a friend’s ancestral home, and in the original performance the friend’s wife took one of the solo parts while Dvořák himself played the organ. In 1892, during the white heat of Dvořák-mania in the UK, Novello’s commissioned him to bulk the Mass up with four solo voices, a larger choir and a full orchestra. This is what we heard in this concert, and in the more intimate sections – notably the opening of the Kyrie - the sound was truly lovely. The choral tone was well balanced, the diction exquisite and Moe’s shaping of the melodic phrases beautifully moulded. Supporting the choir were members of the re:Sound chamber orchestra, and while they offered sensitive and alert response, the horns and trombones always merging into the texture with unerring acuity, I am not sure that communication with the conductor was always clear, leading to a little confusion at one point and a tendency for dynamics to be violently contrasted rather than subtly nuanced.
Unfailingly impressive, however, was the team of soloists. As one Singaporean audience-member observed on the way out, “Felicia Two really held her own”, referring to the one Singaporean singer in the line-up. Teo certainly did impress with the strength of her delivery and laser-sharp accuracy in the soprano solos, and she blended in well for the ensemble numbers. She rightly stood proudly alongside a team of really top-flight Scandinavian soloists. Contralto Désirée Baraula had a lovely warmth and lyricism, while Thomas Ruud proved, as ever, to be a robust and intensely musical presence. Anchoring the quartet with a rich, resonant and wonderfully characterful bass voice was the towering presence of Magne Frennerlid.
Whether it was general tiredness or audience intervention, the Dvořák was, for all its many good points, a bit of a disappointment. However, the day was saved by two encores, attractive arrangements of songs in English and Chinese, the latter of which in particular helped boost the applause to music ration to somewhere approaching 50:50.