Sublime farewell



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Thirty-two years is a lifetime when one considers the services to choral music by Lim Yau, the outgoing choral director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. A successor has been named, but his legacy - comprising two terms of 16 years each - is a massive one to live up to.

His first term from 1981 to 1997, as chorus master of the Singapore Symphony Chorus (SSC), focused on building core concert repertoire, with works such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Handel's Messiah, Orff's Carmina Burana and Mendelssohn's Elijah.

The years 2000 to the present saw the SSC augmented by college and community choirs to form a mega- chorus. This enabled monumental works - such as Mahler's Symphony Of A Thousand, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, Britten's War Requiem and MacMillan's Seven Last Words - to receive Singapore premieres at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Lim's final concert was typical of his innovative programming, juxtaposing two contrasted but spiritually connected works, both receiving first-ever performances here.

The still-living Estonian Arvo Part's Te Deum revealed a variety of choral intimacy that was close to his heart. Despite the posture of praise, it is more subdued than exultant, building on unison chants and gentle triads which ring gently on the ear.

This stock-in-trade tintinnabuli was present, but impressive was the evenness of unison singing from the three choirs, including a semi-chorus on centre stage. The minutest of pianissimos was no easy task of control, but Lim's charges were all ears and one in voice. The orchestra's string textures were sparse but well- marshalled, serving more as interludes than outright accompaniment.

Shane Thio's minimalist piano contribution and Lu Heng's manning of electronic tape and ison (a Byzantine drone) added to the mystique, which coursed through its seemingly timeless half-hour duration. A solo soprano voice was a balm in the closing pages, with the semi-chorus' reassuring Sanctus as a quiet invocation of parting.

With woodwinds, brass and percussion joining in for Bruckner's Third Mass In F Minor, one's penchant for sound and bluster would soon be sated. However, this is a far more nuanced work than one might expect from the provincial Austrian who played the organ and idolised Wagner. Again, it was the quieter sections which impressed, beginning with the serious demeanour of worship that opened the Kyrie Eleison.

Ecstatic joy in the Gloria and Credo were soon to come and the sheer volume built up for the shattering climaxes was a pleasure to experience.

There was still the luxury of four imported soloists - soprano Alexandra Steiner, mezzo-soprano Celeste Haworth, tenor Jussi Myllys and bass Alexander Vassiliev - who had short but important parts in key verses. Ultimately, it was Lim's choruses which stole his final show.

From the beautiful Benedictus to the final Agnus Dei, here was a sublime close with Rachel Walker's brief oboe solo and a serene walk into the sunset.

How apt it was for Lim's inspired musicianship and leadership to do the talking. If one pondered how this professed non-Christian could be so sympathetic in Christian music, the answer would be this: Music is his true religion and creed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Sublime farewell'. Print Edition | Subscribe