Concert review: Flood of Beauty is bold, beautiful and baffling

Gustav Mahler once wrote, "The symphony is a world. It must encompass everything."

British composer Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) had taken that view to further extremes, to include not just the world but the heavens and spiritual realms. His last major work, Flood Of Beauty, composed between 2006 and 2007 but left unperformed at his death, embraced that ethos.

A posthumous co-commission by Esplanade and Barbican Centre, its Asian premiere took place on Friday at Esplanade Concert Hall as the most ambitious project ever mounted in the Singapore arts centre's A Tapesty of Sacred Music festival.

Lasting about 110 minutes, it took two vocal soloists, a cellist, three traditional Indian instrumentalists, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra of 60 players, and a mixed chorus of more than 100 singers directed by three conductors to perform.

A devotee of Orthodox Christianity, Tavener took to Asian religions and philosophy in his later years, spawning the ecumenical view that multiple paths led to God.

Flood Of Beauty was a setting of the epic Sanskrit poem Soundarya Lahari by Hindu cleric Adi Shankaracharya, performed in five movements or cycles.

A short prelude by Nadarajan Kathirgamu (sitar) and Nawaz Mirajkar (tabla) serenely led into the first of four cycles, which got increasingly longer.

Then the voices of soprano Alison Bell and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, together with the choirs on stage and in the upper circles, chanted the word "sachchidananda", which represented a state of heightened consciousness and bliss.

The massive orchestral forces with conductors Jason Lai (stage), Leonard Tan and Adrian Chiang (on either sides of the second circle) provided an ethereal sphere of surround-sound that permeated the entire work.

Tavener's music is highly tonal. He was often lumped in a movement of contemporary composers of supposed

"sacred minimalism". His aesthetics have, however, been divisive. Some loath his repetitiousness and apparent vacuousness, while others adore his spirituality and timelessness.

Flood was, for the large part, more ecstatic than static, and within the first cycle, almost the entire pantheon of Hindu gods and deities were exalted by name, as the music shifted in gear into the next rung of enlightenment.

Each cycle closed with Ng Pei-Sian's passionate solos, the cello serving as a focal point, a kind of divine messenger heralding the next cycle and higher plane of existence.

For this listener, he provided an oasis of relief that the earlier hubbub has ended, and a new and better experience was to be encountered.

Unfortunately, the third cycle became particularly vexatious and self-indulgent, almost drowning within in its own suffocating froth. By now, some audience members were seen leaving the hall.

The Esplanade's Klais pipe organ played by Evelyn Lim was heard in its full glory in the fourth cycle and soprano Bell progressed to nether regions where she continued to warble quite beautifully.

If one were bored by the highly strung music, the transliterations projected on two screens provided some entertainment. The eroticism of the Kama Sutra was relived in lines such as "goosebumps form on your graceful neck because you are overjoyed in the embrace of Siva".

Then the penny dropped.

The first four cycles had been a solid 80 minutes of foreplay, culminating in the fifth cycle's consummation of a coital act of cosmic and celestial proportions. That would explain the frenzied last half hour of orgasmic outbursts from the entire body of performers, followed by detumescence in the form of a string quartet's reminiscence, cellist Ng's final oration and sitar, tabla and tambura to conclude as the work had begun.

This was a magnificent effort by all concerned, but was Flood Of Beauty a piece of sublime art or an emperor's new clothes?

From the first listen, some of its strengths and weaknesses may be discerned, but the jury might very well be still out. A second or third listen may be helpful.

On the other hand, one might be better off leaving things as they are, taking home some cherished memories and listening to Mahler instead.