MOZART'S VESPERS / HAYDN'S LONDON
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge / Graham Ross (Director of Music & Fellow)
Musicians from Orchestre des Champs-Elysees
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Jason Lai (Conductor)
Suyen Rae (soprano), Tan Shi Yu (mezzo soprano), Fang Zhi (tenor), Jeong Daegyun (baritone)
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall/Last Friday (Sept 9)
Thanks to the establishment of the vocal studies department at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, the audience present were treated to an uplifting concert of choral music by Mozart and Haydn's final symphony, with a quartet of final-year voice students and the Conservatory Orchestra joined by the renowned Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and five musicians from the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees, France.
The first half was taken up by Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confessore (Mozart's Vespers), a set of five evening psalms and a closing Magnificat for orchestra, choir and four solo voices. The conservatory's principal conductor Jason Lai's challenge was to blend a top British choir and the soloists with an orchestra led by a visiting concertmaster and principal viola, cello, clarinet and horn from a world-famous French period instrument ensemble. This he did with great success, offering a fresh reading of the Vespers that emphasised fluency and energy.
The Vespers would be familiar material for any university choir in Cambridge with their long tradition of choral evensong. The singers from Clare College, with a discography of more than 40 recordings over their four-decade history were immaculately prepared by their music director Graham Ross. They never sounded pushed or strained, their tone and balance were excellent, and they handled the complex fugal sections of the fourth movement Laudate Pueri (Psalm 113) with ease. A lighter touch would have helped with the clarity of Latin text, though.
The soloists performed commendably, despite their having less experience and international experience than many of the choristers. Soprano Suyen Rae's intonation and flexibility impressed in the fifth movement Laudate Dominium (Psalm 117), and there was excellent cohesiveness in the soloists' duets and quartets.
Balance between the three groups could have been better, with the 20-plus singers from Cambridge sometimes overpowering the orchestra and soloists.
There was also just one work, Haydn's Symphony No. 104 (London) in the second half. As he did in the first half, Lai directed with precision and clarity, aided by strong and empathetic leadership from the principals from France. This led to a refreshing blend of historically informed performance and youthful exuberance, performed on modern instruments.
Lai's tempos were brisk but never rushed. While some of the strings were visibly still adjusting to playing styles of their French principals, the winds seemed to be fully at home with the playing styles of principal clarinet Jean-Philippe Vasseur and principal horn Jean-Pierre Dassonville.
Principal flute Liu Yihan stood out in the slow second movement, with excellent phrasing and tone that would have fit perfectly in any period instrument ensemble. The same go for timpanist Chang Hio Man, whose drum-like strokes captured the essence of how the drums were used in Haydn's last symphonies and the trumpets, who took much care to blend with the rest of the orchestra.
This short, all-classical programme is a welcome evolution of the conservatory's orchestral series. Presenting such high calibre concerts in partnership with leading musicians from around the world has obvious benefits to the students of the conservatory, and adds much appreciated colour and variety to concert programmes for local concertgoers.