By Shahril Salleh
(1,200 words, 6-minute read)
Choral music festivals are gaining traction in Singapore. In my opinion, this is a good thing for both the choral music scene as well as the arts ecosystem. From a place-making perspective, not only do festivals create attention and vibrancy at the arts and civics districts, we also take opportunities to import amazing works and talents for local consumption. From my ethnographic observations as part of my research, Singaporean choir festivals have impressive reach in terms of local participation, and these participants are mostly drawn from the various school choirs. On top of this, choir festivals have been bringing in world-class performers and clinicians. It’s always a treat to see local choirs on stage, and to watch the invited performers and clinicians sharing the stage. The Treble Voices Festival (TVF) is one of these choral festivals.
This concert, part of the second edition of the Treble Voices Festival, had an impressive line-up of performers. The featured guest choir was the world renowned Cantemus Children’s choir from Hungary, with their conductor Dénes Szabó. This concert also featured world renowned choral clinician Maria Theresa Vizconde Roldan from the Philippines. She directed the combined Children’s Festival Choir, consisting of students from Princess Elizabeth Primary School Choir and North Spring Primary School Choir. Also joining the guests on stage were two local school choirs, St. Theresa Convent Choir and Hai Sing Catholic School Choir, who collectively made up the Treble Youth Festival Choir.
The concert opened with a processional of Hendrik Andriessen’s Salve Regina by Cantemus. Their beautifully relaxed tone and graceful entrance set a very high bar for what was to follow. As the choir finally settled on stage, their conductor Dénes entered the hall. Whilst I was suitably impressed with the way the girls carried themselves on stage, their conductor was altogether on a whole other level – one closer to that of an international rockstar. Here was a man whom, with a gentle disposition and welcoming smile on his face, commanded every audience member’s attention with the finesse of an irascible field commander. He was the epitome of everyone’s favourite teacher, and it was very apparent that the choir members all adored him. His lack of a command of English wasn’t a barrier for him to win over the audience either; whilst one of the choristers did interpret for him, his easy mannerism was universally understood. I was made to forget that we were at VCH – in my mind, we were all whisked away to his rehearsal room at school.
Easy demeanours and friendly disposition aside, the choir’s performance was a tour de force. For their opening set, the choir performed a few European sacred works. Following the procession mentioned earlier, they sang two pieces written by Zoltán Kodály, Ave Maria and Geneva Psalm CL (150). Next came Miklós Kocsár’s Salve Regina. Two other Ave Marias followed, one written by Guilio Caccini, and the other by Franz Biebl. The section ended with a rousing rendition of Levente Gyöngyösi’s Laudate Dominum.
Biebl’s Ave Maria needs special mention. For this piece, which is written for a double choir, some of the choir members walked off the stage and onto the aisle, effectively surrounding the audience. What struck me was the sensitivity to the dynamics, which the choir expertly and effortlessly performed. Dénes took great liberties with the piece by omitting the second incipit chant as well as having a broad rubato at the cadences, but this did not detract from the antiphonal beauty and quiet majesty of the piece.
Following the opening section by Cantemus, the choir was joined by St. Theresa Convent Choir. Under Dénes’ direction, the combined choir sang Zoltán Kodály’s Dancing Song. Initially, the ladies from St. Theresa Convent Choir looked reserved and apprehensive compared to their friends in Hungary. To their credit, most of these inhibitions went away once the music and choreography started, and they managed to deliver a good rendition of the work with much aplomb.
Following the combined performance, the Children’s Festival Choir came on as the ending segment of the first half of the concert. It’s easy to understand why they stole the show and the hearts of the audience. I noted how the people around me cooed and smiled as they watched these brave and musical children trooping up on stage. Many of these young singers were noticeably nervous, but their faces lit up as Maria Theresa joined them. Whilst I appreciate the polished performance of Cantemus, I strongly felt that the Children’s Festival Choir was a high point of the concert/festival. They sang two songs – The Singapore Premier of Jude B. Roldan’s Jack En Poy, and Greg Gilpin’s How Can I Keep From Singing. I am very appreciative of the amount of courage these young children have in order to sing on stage. Some of them allowed themselves to really enjoy the performance process and performed with panache and style, especially the little girl on the second row, fourth person standing from stage right (Well done you!). They sang beautifully and convincingly under Maria Theresa’s guidance, earning them a roaring applause.
The second half of the concert began with the Treble Youth Festival Choir under the direction of Marcus Lee. The combined choir consisted of members from CHIJ St. Theresa’s Convent Choir and Hai Sing Catholic School Choir. The singers seemed comfortable with one another and with the choir conductor, which was apparent in the way they performed the following two pieces. They sang Elaine Hagenberg’s Song of Miriam and Jude B. Rodan’s Saiyo Lamang. Musically, both pieces were elegant and poignant. Despite their youth, the ensemble performed these works with both great sensitivity to the tropes of doubt and resolution, as well as a musical and emotional maturity beyond their years. From where I sat, I could see the singers doing their best to tell the stories of the songs through their singing and body language. Such sincere performances should be encouraged, and hopefully we will get to see more of this in future concerts.
Cantemus then entered the stage again, this time sharing it with some of the singers from Hai Sing Catholic School Choir. Together, they performed SG Medley by Dr. Zechariah Goh, who graced the concert as the director of the piece. Cantemus performed the rest of the second half, and showcased a few folksong arrangements by Zoltán Kodály and Jószef Karai. Two Kodály works particularly captured my attention: Esti Dal and Túrót eszik a cigány, two of Kodály’s best loved works for choir. Having performed them myself in a previous lifetime ago, nostalgia and perfect Hungarian diction by the choir made me clap very vigorously and enthusiastically after their section was over.
The whole concert came to a rousing end when Cantemus was joined by the singers from the Treble Youth Festival Choir on stage and off stage in the aisles. Festival Director Marcus Lee led them to sing the anthem of the festival, We Are The Treble Voices. It was lovely to see the singers and the festival director getting into the groove of the choreography – a meaningful way to celebrate the end of the first night of the festival. Overall, the concert was a stunning success, albeit a little lengthy. I look forward to next year’s iteration of TVF, where I hope to see more of our own singers, conductors and composers participating and being showcased.
The 2nd annual Treble Voices Festival by Choral Moments took place on 23 August 2019 at the Victoria Concert Hall.
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.