REVIEW / CONCERT
MAHLER 8: A GIFT TO THE ENTIRE NATION
Esplanade Concert Hall/ Last Friday and Saturday
The Orchestra of the Music Makers raised collective eyebrows in 2010, when a group of talented youngsters, led by conductor Chan Tze Law, performed Gustav Mahler's First and Second Symphonies to much acclaim.
At that time, they had already set their eyes on the ultimate prize - Mahler's Eighth, also known as the Symphony Of A Thousand - to be performed this year, in celebration of Singapore's 50th year of independence.
The years passed like a flash and what seemed like wishful thinking became reality as symphonic music's Mount Everest was finally scaled. It was not so much conquered as celebrated like a labour of love that only dedicated and true music-lovers know how.
This was a joint effort by 133 instrumentalists, eight international vocal soloists and choirs from Singapore (Vocal Associates Festival Chorus & Children's Chorus) and Australia (Perth Symphonic Chorus, Queensland Festival Chorus and The Winthrop Singers), totalling more than 200 singers and presented by HSBC.
The 80-minute epic is in two parts, the first based on the 9th- century Pentecostal hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) and the second a setting of the Final Scene from Goethe's Faust.
Like a modern projection of Beethoven's Ode To Joy, Mahler's vision of the Gift To The Entire Nation was the universality of redemption through love and repentance as espoused in Holy Scripture, as well as a personal love message to his wife Alma.
Massive opening chords from organist Joanna Paul and the explosive entry of the choruses signalled that this was going to be an energetically charged account, buoyed by the greatest of convictions and sheer courage.
There cannot be more than a handful of musicians or singers this evening who have performed the work before, but they were in the surest of hands, with conductor Chan as steady as he was meticulously prepared.
The choral entries in the complex contrapuntal Veni Creator Spiritus were spot-on in delivery and their impact was matched by the orchestra's incisive yet sensitive contributions. The music struck a delicate balance between words and notes and rarely was one side dominant over the other for long. Its relatively short 24 minutes blazed like a sizzling meteor.
The soloists came to the fore in the twice-as-long and more operatic Second Part, opening with baritone Warwick Fyfe's Pater Ecstaticus, bass Joshua Bloom's Pater Profundus and tenor Dongwon Shin's Doctor Marianus. All three were excellent and there was little separating sopranos Hyon Lee and Ariya Sawadivong, as well as altos Deborah Humble and Songmi Yang - all of whom represented fallen biblical women seeking ultimate redemption.
The sole Singaporean soloist was soprano Janani Sridhar (a past HSBC Youth Excellence Award winner) as Mater Gloriosa, perched high up in the organ loft with her two short crowning lines, Komm, Hebe Dich Zu Hohern Spharen (Come, Rise Up To Higher Spheres), offering the hope of eternal salvation.
Shock and awe, to be expected in a Mahler score, were a given but what impressed most from this performance was to be found in its multi-layered nuances.
The slow extended orchestral build-up in the Second Part was gripping in its expectancy and there was a quiet section with just organ, violins and two harps, which had the spell of the magical.
Concertmaster Chan Yoong Han's many violin solos were objects of beauty amid the rough-hewn soundscape and the children's voices (trained by Khor Ai Ming) were a total joy to listen to.
All these and the final Chorus Mysticus (All That Passes Away Is But A Reflection) which swelled inexorably to a voluminous crescendo that only the Esplanade Concert Hall could contain were the stuff of spine-tingling and goosebump-inducing climaxes.
The second performance on Saturday bettered the already impressive effort of the night before, as all the performers had the vast benefit of prior wisdoms. For the listener, the details became better defined and the realisation of the final minutes - a tantalising glimpse of Heaven itself - was an overwhelmingly visceral experience. There cannot have been few unmoved hearts and dry eyes at the end of the journey.
What could possibly follow that celestial conclusion? The two final gifts to the audience began with Bernard Tan's orchestrations of the City Council Song by Zubir Said, which, with the editing of eight bars, became Majulah Singapura, the national anthem.
By now, the chorus of singers had multiplied to more than 1,000 and a standing ovation was guaranteed. It seemed that Mahler's overriding ambition and SG50 were made for each other.