Philharmonic Chamber Choir powers through programme of 21st century pieces

REVIEW / CONCERT

TIMELESS SKIES - ASIAN A CAPPELLA

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Lim Yau (Conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

Never let it be said that the Singapore audience for classical music shies away from a challenge. Here was more than 60 minutes of unaccompanied choral singing in which almost every work was written in the 21st century and few of the composers were widely known, yet an impressively large audience sat enthralled through it all.

Even an interval which lasted longer than the entire first half of the concert was not enough to dampen their ardour and, unusually, the audience was as large for the second half as it had been for the first.

The one composer whose name should have been familiar to the audience was Singapore's own Zechariah Goh. His Three Refrains At Yang Guan was receiving its world premiere at this concert. Its roots in a piece for Guqin were clear, but Goh skilfully weaved an intriguing choral work around it. Perhaps because he had written it specially for The Philharmonic Chamber Choir and was not just present at the concert, but actively participating as a member of the choir, it received a particularly persuasive performance.

The other composer present was Chen Shu-xi. He was sitting in the balcony rather than singing in the choir, but his Four Musical Impressions Of Taiwan was given an equally committed and perceptive performance.

These were musically intriguing pieces, but the big challenge for the choir was that the texts were in the Amis language. In fact, the programme involved texts in six Asian languages and dialects, of which only Mandarin would have been generally familiar to the 26 singers on stage. The challenges in the music were, fortunately, not so much of the tongue-twisting variety, but were pretty daunting nonetheless.

Indian composer Vanraj Bhatia probably stretched the choir the furthest in this respect and, in the rapid-fire passagework of his Monsoon, they very nearly came unstuck. The pitch slides, which featured so much in his Autumn, were far more within the choir's technical comfort zone.

Six settings of verses from the Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam in Japanese by Takatomi Nobunaga wandered dangerously close to the atmospheric mood music and contrived athletic obstacles, which those groups for whom choral singing is simply a static competitive sport enjoy so much. But Lim Yau was never going to let his singers degenerate into competitive exhibitionism.

The very musicality of all these performances, coupled with a sumptuous choral tone and a control over the various technical footballs, would have been the envy of any Premier League striker. They vividly demonstrated that under Lim Yau, The Philharmonic Chamber Choir is not just the finest chamber choir in Singapore, but can easily hold its own with any in the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'Choir holds its own'. Print Edition | Subscribe