Concert review: NAFA Orchestra and Chorus shows fire and promise in baroque music

Verily, verily, Victoria Concert Hall was designed for baroque music in mind. After attending almost a year of concerts in the newly reconstructed hall, it is the chamber music and baroque concerts which have given this reviewer the greatest satisfaction. Magnificat, the all-Bach concert on Wednesday by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts with period performance practice in mind, may just be the catalyst for a renaissance of baroque music not just in this space, but in Singapore as well.

Ashley Solomon, founder of the renowned British baroque ensemble Florilegium, led the NAFA Orchestra playing with period bows on modern instruments like a guiding light. The concert opened with the Overture In D Major by Johann Bernhard Bach, a second cousin of the ubiquitous Johann Sebastian. This rarely-heard work, which consists of a French overture and a suite of dances, only exists because the latter had hand-copied the parts for his own use.

The performance was a delightful one, with crisply articulated playing of minimal vibrato that brought out the vivacious essence of the baroque. The dances, which included fast passepieds, a graceful slow sarabande and lively caprice to close, were very well characterised. This playing of ebullience continued in Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto In D Minor For Violin And Oboe (BWV.1060R) with soloists Foo Say Ming and Joost Flach respectively.

This was a rarely-heard edition of the same concerto often heard and recorded in C minor. The ears adapted easily to this transposition, and both soloists shone in the intricate play of intertwined voices and counterpoint through its three movements. The central slow movement, with its singing line shared by the players, can only be described as a gem within an embarassment of riches.

The main work was J.S.Bach's Magnificat In D Major, with the orchestra joined by a 110-member choir comprising the entire corpus of music students in the academy. This was the major departure from the baroque age which operated with far smaller vocal forces, but sheer numbers provided both unity and strength here.

Chorus master Lim Yau, also Head of Music at NAFA, had drilled them well, with the opening proclamation of Magnificat (My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord) coming like joyous laughter as the Virgin Mary exults on learning she will bear the son of God. Their entries in the choral fugues were also close to immaculate, with clarity and diction being strong suits. And has there ever been an choir assembled here with as many as 32 men?

All five soloists acquitted themselves well in arias besides being well matched in duets and ensemble. Countertenor Chia Wee Kiat was a standout in Esurientes Implevit Bonis (He Hath Filled The Hungry With Good Things), buoyantly lifting himself above the two flutes without sounding lightweight. Alto Jessica Chen and soprano Isyana Sarasvati provided contrasting timbres to the arias Et Exsultavit (And My Spirit Hath Rejoiced) and Quia Respexit (For He Hath Regarded) respectively, the latter poignantly accompanied by oboe and cello.

Tenor Jeremy Koh emoted well in the emphatic Deposuit (He Hath Put Down) while baritone William Lim only had the brief Quia Fecit (For He Is Mighty) to distinguish himself. The final Gloria, which reprised the first movement's revelry, provided grandstanding moments for the chorus and orchestra, which were greeted with deafening cheers from the audience. With NAFA's revitalised appetite and promise in baroque music, there is certainly great scope for more high quality performances of early music to look forward to here.