By Shahril Salleh
( 1,000 words, 6-minute read)
As cultural icons go, very few choirs have the same gravitas and history as the SYC Ensemble Singers. This ensemble is led by Cultural Medallion winner Jennifer Tham, the beloved doyen of Singapore choir. As its Artistic Director, Jennifer has also been a friend and mentor to many local composers. Under her direction, the SYC Ensemble Singers have always been at the forefront of performing new music written for the choral medium. Often, this move to champion new works, especially by local composers, is not seen favourably by audiences here. In an earlier review of a concert by Composers Society of Singapore, I noted that in Singapore, new music is often misconstrued to be difficult to understand and not really mass audience friendly. Yet in spite of these sentiments, the choir and their director have not shied away from providing these composers a voice and a place at the (performance) table.
The concert title, Love! Be: Sing; was a little teaser of what was to follow. The repertoire featured 20th and 21st century works on the theme of love and included the works of two Singaporean composers. The choir opened the concert with The Four Loves: Eros by local composer Kenneth Tay, who recently returned home after reading Music Composition at the University of Aberdeen. Kenneth’s work invokes an imagining of the Scottish Highlands with melodic word painting and rhythmic interpolation. Having this piece as the concert opener drove home an important message – that young Singaporean composers are well on their way towards creating music worthy of being presented alongside other international works. In fact, almost half the songs performed in the concert were written by Singaporean composers.
Owen Underhill’s Love Songs I followed the opening piece. The nature of these two songs vis-à-vis one another is almost lacunae – where the opening piece was fast, energetic and almost polyphonic in style, the other had stretched out phrases and a constancy of a homophonic treatment of the text. Next, the choir presented Torbjørn Dyrud’s Lovesongs: Lovesong I. This was the first of the songs that the choir programmed in their repertoire, and collectively the works draw their text from the Canticum Canticorum. Lovesong I set the tone for love’s ambiguity and contrariness, where the desire borne out of love drives people to acts of both generosity and cruelty. The use of weaving in both open intervals and note clusters added to the dimension of ambiguity, and painted quite clearly the frustration experienced by the beloved. The last piece of the first half of the concert was Lorenzo Donati’s Gioi. This piece was clearly an audience favourite. The word gioi was articulated repeatedly throughout the work, with the men inflecting the end vowels to create a shimmering overtone. This word anchored the audiences’ attention as the choir vacillated from harsh whispers to loud shouts, a deliberate musical expression of madness from love’s frustration.
The choir’s performance for the second half of the concert was noticeably more settled and less tentative compared to the first half, opening with the world premiere of Emily Koh’s Homemade Recipe: Char Kuay. I found the performance reminiscent of my attempts in following recipes from the internet. Most of the time, I’m sure I’ve missed out a couple of steps somewhere during the cooking and prepping segment. The food doesn’t really look like what it’s supposed to, yet it still manages to be delicious (Taste over plating anytime!). Culinary adventures aside, the audience was treated to percussive and somewhat aleatoric vocalisations as the recipe was articulated in a sing-speech manner. The text was in Chinese, and as someone who doesn’t speak the language, I only manage to recognise a few (delicious) ingredients like chai poh (preserved turnip).
The next work, also written by Emily, was a visceral piece entitled Nakuniku. The text was drawn from admonishments commonly used by elderly Chinese women on their young female children and grandchildren, to police and reproduce gendered behaviours valued by the patriarchy. The choir did very well to set up the sombre mood of the piece; two soloists, Angela Lee and Look Ru-shin, embodied the matriarch and intoned her words in antiphonal echo amidst a tapestry of textured chords. The text and the performance struck home for many in the audience, and the unease it engendered mirrored the composer’s own troubled ruminations.
Alfred Janson’s Sonnet No. 76 provided a much-needed whimsical relief from the previous piece. Soloist John Rae Cortes wowed audiences with his silky smooth recitative-like rendition and a smouldering come-hither look, as the choir moved on from the light accompaniment textures to the energetic middle section where the different parts sung in interlocking rhythms. The choir then proceeded to perform Torbjørn Dyrud’s Lovesongs: Lovesong II & Lovesong III. The official programme ended with the choir returning to Kenneth Tay’s The Four Loves: Agape, which was the fourth song of the four-song set. The opening refrain reminded me somewhat of Maurice Durufle’s Ubi Caritas intermixed with a traditional Scottish air. The piece moved on to a wider texture, where the sopranos echoed the words “abide” on top of the choir’s homophonic accompaniment, and finally ended with a quiet cadence. The audience was then treated with The Rainbow Connection as an encore piece, lovingly arranged by Michael Yudistira, one of the members of the choir.
I greatly admire the musical mastery of the ensemble in dealing with new music, something worth mentioning in the context of the arts scene today. The repertoire in totality was a rich aural experience. Yet in some ways, such an array of music could be overwhelming to the uninitiated. On reflection, perhaps what could have helped the audience were more detailed descriptions of the works in the programme booklet, and perhaps a feature on Kenneth Tay as well (perhaps there was – the programme booklet I took seemed to be missing a few pages). We need to encourage and inculcate newer audiences to come and watch concerts such as these, and as performers, we do need to re-examine the ways in which we help scaffold the experience for these new initiates. That said, the concert was beautifully curated, and I look forward to the next adventure that the SYC Ensemble Singers will bring us.
Love! Be: Sing; concert by SYC Ensemble Singers took place on 24 August 2019 at Victoria Concert Hall in Singapore.
Shahril Salleh is currently a PhD Candidate (ABD) of Sociology from the School of Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University. His research examines the relationships between arts practitioners and the State. Part of his research involves going to concerts and performances and having long and deep conversations with arts practitioners from different disciplines over tea and cake (and sometimes biscuits). In his spare time, he directs a local non-auditioned community choir and volunteers as a mentor to his peers as well as to underserved communities.