Singers triumph in heart-stopping drama

Taiwanese conductor Lu Shao-chia.



Peter Sidhom (baritone), Symphonia Choralis, Orchestra of the Music Makers, Lu Shao-chia (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

This might have been the first time Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast have been performed in the same concert.

Most orchestras separate performances of these two musical spectaculars by weeks, months, even seasons. But the inconceivable and the impossible are meat and drink to the Orchestra of the Music Makers.

It was not ignorance or bravery which drove this programming, but single-minded ambition. And in the world of classical music where safety and caution usually rule the day, it is refreshing that concertgoers have an orchestra which so happily throws safety and caution to the wind.

Both these heavyweight works use extravagant musical gestures to describe radically conflicting ideologies and with them performed side by side, one is bound to come off worse.

Last Saturday night, it was the Strauss.

It takes a uniquely visionary conductor to transform Strauss' rambling representation of Nietzsche's view of Zoroastrianism into something musically coherent.

Taiwanese conductor Lu Shao-chia showed no such visionary tendencies and the relative inexperience of the orchestral players meant that when he lost direction, they did too.

If Strauss was the loser, Walton was the outright winner in this contest of giants.

Lu was probably wise to drive it along so relentlessly through the multitude of shattering climaxes, keeping the pressure on right to the outrageously celebratory ending.

The orchestra battled along courageously and successfully negotiated most of Walton's dazzling sonic effects.

The real heroes of the evening, however, were the singers.

Baritone Peter Sidhom was a powerful stage presence with a voice to match.

He expounded on the vast riches of Babylon with relish and had real menace as he expostulated on Belshazzar's terrible downfall. This was a voice of stern authority and immense power, which commanded attention and cut through the swathes of orchestral and choral texture like a scythe.

When Sidhom declared the death of Belshazzar in the single word, Slain, the responding choral shout came like the report of a firing squad - abrupt and decisive.

As with any choral group drawn from a wide variety of choirs, some individual voices broke through and there was an absence of true blend. But who needs choral polish when you can have such sheer, heart-stopping drama?

Chorus master Chong Wai Lun achieved astounding things with his enormous choral force, not the least of which was the singers' impeccable diction.

Every single word, every syllable was crystal clear around the hall. More than that, they delivered those words with vivid potency, never skimping on melodrama or holding back on the climaxes.

There can be no doubt that the triumphant victory in this titanic musical struggle between good and evil, god and man, was down to this fabulous choral singing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline 'Singers triumph in heart-stopping drama'. Print Edition | Subscribe