Fine Tuning a Venerable Old Hall

SingaporeSingapore Vierne, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven:  Margaret Chen (organ), Shane Thio (piano), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Jason Lai (conductor), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore, 29.5.2014 (RP)

Vierne: Carillon de Westminster, Op. 54, No. 6
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C major, K.467, Movement II – Andante
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67

Victoria Concert Hall is entering the final stages of a four-year renovation. A select audience was given a sneak preview of what has been going on beneath the scaffolding and also participated in an acoustical test of the hall. The program was entitled “Acoustical Test Performance,” and the evening’s host stressed, “This is not a concert!”

The hall has a rich history. It was completed in 1905 to commemorate the 60th wedding anniversary of Queen Victoria. Remarkable, when you think of it, as she had died four years earlier and Prince Albert  back in 1861. Victoria Memorial Hall, as it was originally known, was first used as a public meeting place. During World War II it served a hospital, and after the war ended, Japanese war crime tribunals were held there. Of greater significance for modern Singapore, the People’s Action Party  ̶  Singapore’s ruling political party since its founding in 1954  ̶  had its beginnings here. The hall will be finished in plenty of time for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Republic in Singapore next year.

With the founding of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1974, it was renovated and acquired its present name. Not only the SSO but local choirs, orchestras, bands and recitalists performed in the hall, and international musicians also graced its stage, including the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and St. Petersburg Philharmonic. It must have been wonderful to hear the likes of the great German baritone Hermann Prey and the renowned Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich perform in such an intimate space. With the opening of the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in 2002, the SSO had the luxury of two performance spaces, the Esplanade Concert Hall seating 1,600 and Victoria Concert Hall with a capacity of 883.

I was never in the hall pre-renovation, but I spoke to several people who had performed or attended concerts there, and all were delighted with the physical transformation. It is bright and light, and the predominant colors are white and pale olive green, with a restrained touch on the gold leaf. Seats are spacious with ample leg room even for this very tall critic. Structural changes include a new ceiling (flat as opposed to the former, arched one), the installation of twenty-four adjustable, acoustical reflectors and a new, modern-looking balcony. The number of seats was reduced to 673.  All of this was done with the aim of improving the sound quality for both performers and audiences.

The actual acoustical testing came midway through the evening. An electronic signal that went from the lowest to highest frequencies in a manner of seconds was repeated four different times at four different locations in the hall. It was loud and piercing, and musicians and audience members alike covered their ears. The audience was instructed to be quiet. Only one of the four tests had to be repeated.

It is unfair to comment on the acoustics of the hall at this stage. It’s a work in progress, and that is what the evening was all about. First impressions are that the sound is very clear and present. All sections of the orchestra could be clearly heard, but the hall seemed to favor strings over woodwinds and brass. The sound was a bit dry, with little reverberation, but that will be most likely remedied if the experts concur with my opinion.

Audience noise could also be clearly heard. Sharp glances were thrown at the usual offenders: a person slowly unwrapping a piece of candy, loud whispers while the music was playing and the like. Sitting next to me was a dignified man of a certain age. His mobile phone went off during the second movement of the Beethoven  ̶  the real acoustical scourge of our times.

But what of the music? It was delightful. Margaret Chen, one of Singapore’s finest organists, tested out the newly renovated 1984 Klais organ with the familiar Vierne work. Given the history of the hall, nothing could have been more appropriate than to open with the four-note theme that is sounded on the quarter hour from Big Ben in London. The organ was removed piece by piece, repaired and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse for four years during the renovation work.

Jason Lai is always an engaging and energetic conductor. Pianist Shane Thio has to be one of the busiest people in Singapore, accompanying recitalists, serving as the rehearsal pianist for the Singapore Symphony Chorus, performing with the SSO and accompanying Mozart recitatives on the harpsichord, as he did recently for the Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte. It was a pleasure to hear his elegant playing in the second movement of the Mozart concerto in yet another of his many musical guises. It all ended with an energetic and impassioned Beethoven Fifth, which also has a very famous four-note theme. The evening had come full circle.

The invited guests were not the only ones getting a feel for the acoustics of the hall. Orchestra members were visibly engaged in the process: they too have to hear one another play and get a sense of what the hall does with their sound. First impressions being just that, it is safe to predict the Victoria Concert Hall will prove to be a delight to both the eye and the ear for music lovers in Singapore. In yet another way, this small city state is again punching above its weight.

Rick Perdian

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