Fun-filled musical menagerie

REVIEW / CONCERT

VIENNA BOYS' CHOIR

Kids' Philharmonic/ Manolo Cagnin (conductor)

Esplanade Orchestra Hall/Thursday

Animals featured prominently at this concert. The sounds of cats, dogs, cuckoos, even a monkey, all found their way into an extraordinary musical menagerie by the 15th-century Italian composer, Adriano Banchieri.

His intention was to imitate the sounds of animals performing a piece of strict musical counterpoint, and the Vienna Boys' Choir happily obliged. Their barking dogs and screeching monkeys were uncannily realistic.

Cats were on the prowl in another song. However, hard as they tried, the sweet Viennese boys in cute sailor uniforms could not evoke the spitting vitriol and hissing bitchiness of a pair of operatic divas - which is what Rossini's Cats' Duet is all about.

Beyond this musical fun, the concert's first half was notable for the struggle by the boys to match the exuberantly demonstrative presence of their conductor, Manolo Cagnin. Unwisely, he accompanied them on the piano - such was the force of his hands, the determination of his right foot to keep the pedal down and the Ferrari-like velocity of his fingerwork, that the best the boys could do was to keep going and finish intact. They made some lovely sounds, especially in Mascagni's Easter Hymn and the inevitable Blue Danube, but musically, this was disappointing.

For the second half, someone had mercifully put the piano out of Cagnin's reach and the stage was filled by the large (and surprisingly mature) Kids' Philharmonic.

They got off to a shaky start in Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture, but soon got into their stride.

When the choir came back on stage, things began to get impressive. Potential balance problems between choir and orchestra were averted by an amplification system which had the voices coming not from the back of the stage, where the choir was, but booming down from above the orchestra.

In music by Mozart and Haydn, the Singapore instrumentalists seemed almost more instinctively Viennese than the Viennese boys.

But the undoubted highlight of the entire evening was an enchanting performance of Schubert's Ave Maria sung with angelic purity and remarkable self-assurance by a single unamplified boy's voice supported by delectably discreet orchestral playing.

The subtlety of the Schubert was soon forgotten as, for the remainder of the concert, Cagnin's showmanship kicked in with a vengeance. With extravagant gestures and Mussolini-like strutting on the podium, he pushed the musicians to their limits. It was never subtle or even particularly respectable musically, but it did get the audience worked up.

In the end, a manic account of the Tritsch Tratsch Polka had the packed hall on its feet clamouring for more. Cagnin duly obliged. Twice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Fun-filled musical menagerie'. Print Edition | Subscribe