Concert review: Soprano Khor Ai Ming beguiles with Chinese, Malay and Western classics

Celebrated as a choir conductor and vocal coach, Malaysian-born soprano Khor Ai Ming continues to develop as a solo recitalist in her annual recitals, which showcase a wide repertoire.

There are other sopranos who can boast of more powerful lungs or flashier techniques but few are blessed with Khor's versatility. After all, who is equally at home singing Chinese and Malay songs, Western classical standards and modern works such as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire?

Her two-hour recital, The Colour Palette of My Life, performed without a break last Saturday at the Esplanade Recital Studio, featured about 20 songs in a totally informal setting.

Far from being a serious and staid affair, Khor bantered with her audience like a show-and-tell session, where the listeners were privy to her life story.

The first sentences of Harold Arlen's Over The Rainbow were sung without accompaniment, a very difficult proposition given how exposed the lines were, but she did so fearlessly and without wavering. Sebastian Ho's guitar accompaniment then emerged, providing a jazzy spin to the song.

Those impressed by Khor's idiomatic grasp of Malay in P. Ramlee's Getaran Jiwa and Jimmy Boyle's Peteri Putera (in arrangements by Juliette Lai) will have learnt that she studied Bahasa Malaysia as a first language in school while growing up in Kota Baru.

Her father listened to Chinese pop records while her mother sang to raise funds to buy her school's first piano. Those memories were relived in songs like Mo Ran's Bu Liao Qing (Love Without End) and Mai Tang Ge (Selling Sweets), also performed with much flair and allure.

Western classical repertoire was picked up in Singapore, represented by three Italian aria antiche, accompanied by pianist Bertrand Lee. Giordani's Caro Mio Ben was given a sleek and clean reading, while Cesti's Intorno All'idol Mio revealed clear enunciation and delicate nuances.

In Paisiello's Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento, florid embellishments were attempted in its variations but not all were pulled off with the greatest of ease.

Khor also thanked Singapore for presenting her with the greatest gift of all, her husband, drummer Tama Goh, whose band provided an improvised interlude as she exited for a change of costume.

They also gave back-up for a sequence of jazzy songs by William Walton, Betty Roe, Kurt Weill and Xavier Montsalvatge. The last composer's Canto Negro was an uproarious dance-song in Catalan, with the slightest excuse for the band to jam and jive.

Chinese pop songs of yesteryear were now rendered like true art songs by Khor and these represented the concert's best moments.

Only a stone-cold heart would not be moved by her versions of Qian Shou (Holding Hands) or Ju Hua Tai (Chrysanthemum Terrace) which were accompanied by Chinese brush painter Stephen Leong's on-the-spot creation on a canvas. He was done by the end of the songs, a painting of a floral garden with added calligraphy.

The recital closed with Dick Lee's Bunga Sayang and Harry Carroll's I'm Always Chasing Rainbows (inspired by a Chopin melody), which roused a standing ovation.

Khor's next recital will be keenly awaited.