A Festival of Song Opens in Singapore

SingaporeSingapore Bach, Brahms, Pärt, Debussy, Tormis: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste (conductor), Concert Hall, Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay, Singapore, 13.12.2013 (RP)

Bach: “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” BMW 225
Brahms: “Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Müseligen,” Op. 74, nr. 1
Pärt: “Magnificat”
Pärt: “Doppa la Vittoria”
Debussy: “Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans”
Tormis: “Jaanilaulud”
“Raua Needmine”

“The human voice is probably the basic, and yet potentially most profound, instrument.” The performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir certainly added credence to these words by Benson Puah, CEO of The Esplanade Co Ltd, in his welcome note to this inaugural concert of “Voices – A Festival of Song.” Time stood still as the ensemble, conducted by its founder Tõnu Kaljuste, performed selections from more than two centuries of choral music.

“Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” is one of Bach’s best known choral pieces. Surely it was chosen in light of the occasion, the text being appropriate to both begin a program and inaugurate a new concert series of vocal music. The choir more than met the virtuosic demands that Bach placed on the singers, and the balance was exquisite. Each voice part, whether singing in eight or four parts, had its own distinctive timbre, and the fugues were models of clarity and precision.

Brahm’s “Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Müseligen” followed. Warum translates to “why,” and the motet begins with the question being posed twice. After the brilliant, rapid fugue that ends the Bach, the stark and dramatic contrast of that word sung first at full volume and then as an echo transported the audience to a new musical world. Where the Bach required instrumental brilliance from the singers, the Brahms called for richness and depth. The low basses were phenomenal. What a thrill to hear such a sound.

The first half ended with three pieces by Arvo Pärt. One need look no further for authoritative performances of his music: a concert by this group is about as authentic as it gets. The “Magnificat,” composed in 1989, is in the tintinnabuli style invented by the composer in the 1970’s. The structure of the piece plays to the ensemble’s strengths. Soloists and chorus alternating seamlessly between two-voices and tutti settings, each dissonance as sharp and clear as ice.

“Virgencita,” composed in 2012, followed. The choir sang a plaintive, haunting performance of this prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, composed as a gift to the Mexican people. The set concluded with “Dopo la Vittoria,” commissioned in 1996 by Milan to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the death of St. Ambrose, the city’s patron saint. The ensemble captured the joy of this remarkable work set in the form of a dialogue commemorating St. Augustine’s baptism by St. Ambrose. The antiphonal singing of the “Te Deum” that forms the core of the work was glorious.

Debussy’s “Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans” opened the second half of the program. The choir captured the contrasting moods and styles of the three songs, which are not linked thematically or musically. The exquisite clarity of their singing carried through in the medieval French texts, although the chorus always maintained a certain Baltic coolness. Of particular note once again were the low basses in the first song; the cool alto soloist in the sultry, languid middle one; and the extraordinary balance in the third. The final song is of winter, and it was the perfect segue to the music of Veljo Tormis, whose two great ballads, “Jaanilaulud” and “Raua Needmine,” returned us to the faraway north.

Tormis is another esteemed, contemporary Estonian composer. He seeks inspiration from the ancient folk songs of Estonians and other peoples of the North. “Jaanillaulud” is from the cycle Estonian Calendar Songs composed in 1967, and is a joyous celebration of Midsummer’s Eve. “Raua Needmine,” one of Tormis’ best-known works, defies description and has to be experienced. The title translates as “curse upon iron.” Tormis combines modern choral techniques with a repetitive ostinato accompanied by a shamanic drum, here played by Kaljuste himself. It is a powerful, dramatic work that ends with the hope that there is land enough for both iron and mankind on earth.

What can one say about such a performance? The choir is performing music of its time in its native language, and they bring drama to every note and word that Tormis has set to paper. Their commitment to this challenging music is phenomenal and never in doubt. Tormis has written that he cannot write music for pleasure or entertainment: his music must say something about the world, nature and man. This choir has the musical and technical skills to deliver his message, and Kaljuste is a force of nature on to himself. It is a privilege to experience such a performance.

There was just one encore. Kaljuste seemed to beckon the audience to join in, but few did. “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” hummed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is just about the best Christmas gift that I could have wished for.

Rick Perdian

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