A moving evening of Poulenc



Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra & Chorus

Victoria Concert Hall/Tuesday

An all-French programme was the culmination of an academic year's work for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' (Nafa) School of Music.

Conducted by Briton Nicholas Cleobury, head of opera at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, there was a striking synergy and symmetry that united all three works in the concert.

Beginning with Maurice Ravel's ballet Mother Goose, the young orchestra crafted a very strong narrative thread through its movements, each retelling a tale from Charles Perrault's collection; and intervening intermezzos.

The playing was sensitive and evocative, with excellent solos from woodwinds, particularly oboe, flutes and piccolo, which conjured an imaginatively fabled atmosphere.

The strings were well disciplined and homogeneous in texture. The opening of The Fairy's Garden was beautifully played, and concert- master Guo Xingchen's violin solos confident and impressive.

In the pentatonic paradise that was Laideronnette, Empress Of The Pagodas, harp, celesta and assorted percussion helped paint an indelible portrait of the Orient, filled with dizzying gamelan sonorities.

That was the vital link to the next work, Francis Poulenc's popular Concerto For Two Pianos, where he used keyboards to simulate the tintinnabuli and clangour of the gamelan orchestra. Soloists Lena Ching and Nicholas Ong, both of the piano faculty, navigated their tricky and intricate parts with razor-sharp reflexes and witty aplomb.

Its aromatic blend of Orientalism, neoclassicism (the slow movement was pure Mozartean charm) and popular dancehall tunes wafted with the pungently intoxicating and hypnotic qualities of incense, a true riot for the senses.

There was even a curious episode for two pianos and solo cello playing a melody in harmonics. Was this Poulenc's salute to the Javanese spiked fiddle?

After the frolicsome finale which closed with a brilliant show of pianistic hijinks, the second half comprised just Poulenc's Gloria for soprano, choir and orchestra. One of the most appealing and often- performed 20th-century choral works, it revealed diametrically opposite aspects of the composer - the sacred and profane, from saint and sinner.

The opening Gloria In Excelsis Deo, executed by excellent brass and percussion with righteous grandeur and pomp, also had an air of flippancy.

The 86-strong chorus, meticulously drilled by Lim Yau, responded with corporate drollery, soon breaking out into an enthusiastic and sincerely felt Laudamus Te, which made the proceedings all the more light and cheerful.

Cheerful would be an unusual adjective for a sacred work, but Poulenc did not hide behind feigned piety and supplication. Central to his exposition was Indonesian soprano Isyana Sarasvati, Nafa alumna and now a media sensation of sorts, whose sweet yet unwavering delivery of Dominus Deus was an epitome of purity and poignancy.

The chorus' unison proclamation of Qui Sedes Ad Dexteram Patris was strong and fervent, setting into motion a truly moving finale. How often does one hear a Miserere Nobis (Have Mercy) sound this joyous? Sarasvati's sonorous "amen" was a ringing declaration from high, an affirmation of answered prayers to which both chorus and orchestra concluded on a serene and sublime high.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'A moving evening of Poulenc'. Subscribe