Contemplative call for peace



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki has become a familiar figure on Singapore stages, whether leading students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in J.S. Bach cantatas and chamber music or conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in choral blockbusters.

His latest venture, a gala concert with Beethoven's monumental Missa Solemnis, might just be his greatest achievement here.

Composed at the same time as his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven's great setting of the Roman Catholic liturgical mass represented yet another facet of his musical genius. While the wildly popular Choral Symphony (Op. 125) espoused secular universal ideals of the "Brotherhood of Man", the solemn and heavier-going Mass In D Major (Op. 123) was his proudest statement of faith in God.

Running just over 72 minutes, it is an exhausting listen, but Suzuki kept a tight rein on the proceedings.

The SSO he directed was a pared-down ensemble, one which projected lightness while not lacking in punch. This made for an invigorating outing, which opened the Kyrie with a D major chord of gripping grandeur. From there, the pace built up steadily, never slacking off as the music rose from one climax to the next.

The 73-member Singapore Symphony Chorus, trained by choral director Eudenice Palaruan who also sang in its ranks, delivered an outsized sonority that was scarcely believable given its relatively small number.

The quartet of soloists - soprano Rachel Nicholls, mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland, tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Christian Immler - were hand-picked by Suzuki himself.

Having worked with him in the complete Bach cantatas and other projects, they were excellent in short solos besides being very well-matched in ensembles.

Ecstatic outbursts characterised the joyous Gloria. Trumpets proferred visions of heaven, trombones declared awe-inspiring might, while Isaac Lee's pipe organ swelled the volume to lofty reaches.

The chorus owned the Credo, the affirmation of the Apostle's Creed, with the tenors unflinchingly giving the shout of Et Resurrexit their best shot.

These two loud movements, with momentous proclamations of Amen, could have triggered the audience into premature applause, but attendees this evening were particularly well-behaved.

Who would have expected in the calming Sanctus, that astonishing extended violin solo, almost a concerto movement in itself by concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich in perfect counterpoint with the singers? These provided moments of exceptional beauty away from the blustery pronouncements of undying faith.

Similarly, the final Agnus Dei, which delighted in intricate woodwind interplay, was also fairly quiet. The more sedate declamations of Dona Nobis Pacem left no one in doubt that the call for peace was not a noisy affair, but a more contemplative one. A better or more nuanced symphonic choral evening would be hard to find.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2019, with the headline 'Contemplative call for peace'. Subscribe