Concert review: Masaaki Suzuki Conducts Bach

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Conservatory Concert Hall

Last Friday

It would not be inaccurate to say that the performance of baroque music in Singapore is still in its infancy. It is not just a matter of gathering a few musicians and singers to perform together, but rather the detailed study of historically informed performance practice has long been lacking here.

This, however, has changed in recent years, with music institutions engaging experienced baroque practitioners to work with their students.

Last year, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts got British baroque specialist Ashley Solomon to conduct its orchestra and chorus in J.S.Bach's Magnificat. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory's invitation of Masaaki Suzuki, founder of the renowned Bach Collegium Japan, to work on Bach's sacred cantatas counts as another landmark.

An infant's first big steps have finally been taken.

Gigantic choirs, those of Victorian choral societies, are foreign to authentic baroque music. Fourteen members from the Conservatory's voice department formed the choir, including nine members who sang solo parts. They were supported by 23 instrumentalists of the Conservatory Camerata, including guests from The Hague Royal Conservatoire and concertmaster Ryo Terakado, one of the world's great baroque violinists.

Composed for church services, these cantatas served like sermons of biblical scripture, for worshippers to reflect and ultimately receive divine benediction through their repentance.

The concert opened with Cantata No.17 Wer Dank Opfert, Der Preiset Mich (He Who Offers Thanks, Praises Me), a statement of thanks for God's providence.

The choir displayed initial nerves in the opening fugue, sounding thin at parts, but soon adapted quickly with confident entries as the movement progressed.

The soloists varied in vocal quality and level of projection, but mezzo-soprano Tan Shi Yun and tenor Fang Zhi stood out in their respective recitative and aria. The final chorale about a father's mercy provided a heartwarming glow.

Conductor Suzuki then took to the harpsichord, directing the Conservatory Strings with soloists Yotam Gaton and Orest Smovzh in Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D minor (BWV. 1043).

Much more familiar to listeners, the crisp performance in three movements exuded much joy as the two disparate voices blended prettily together.

Two cantatas were offered after the interval. Tenor Alan Bennett, Head of the Conservatory's voice programme, mastered the uncomfortably high solo in Cantata No.55 Ich Armer Mensch, Ich Sundenknecht (I Pitiful Man, I Slave Of Sin) with such beseeching tones that it was to hard to ignore the pleas of a penitent soul.

The aria Erbarme Dich (Have Mercy) was especially poignant with Rachel Ho's lovely flute solo gilding the melody as an added voice.

Cantata No.147 Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben (Heart And Mouth And Deed And Life) is Bach's most popular cantata, and with good reason. Its celebratory tone led by trumpeter Teerapol Kiatthaveephong's splendid solo runs sparked a lively opening choral flourish.

Among the singers, mezzo Tan (again) and baritone Daegyun Jeong provided the most convincing solo moments, but the chorus in Wohl Mir, Dass Ich Jesum Habe (Happy I, Who Has Jesus), closing the first part, brought out the most smiles.

That chorale is none other than Bach's most hummed tune, which even laypeople and non-believers know as Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring.

A reprise, as Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude (Jesus Remains My Joy), also concluded the concert, one that will be remembered for its dedication to art and sheer enthusiasm.

Suzuki and his colleagues may have just ushered in a new age of baroque music performance in Singapore.