Concert Review: Joy! – Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Tan

JoyA5-01 Joy!

Jeremy Monteiro — Overture in C “The Story of Singapore”
Beethoven — Symphony No.9 in D minor “Choral”

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra

Adrian Tan, Music Director/Conductor

Wendy Evangela Woon Mei Yu, Soprano

Cheryl Bains, Alto

Raymond Lee Pei Khoon, Tenor

Kong Ling Yi, Bass

The Joy Chorale (Khor Ai Ming, Chorus Mistress)

25 Jan 2015, Sunday 5pm

Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Soo Kian Hing

beethvn1Few pieces of Western music have borne witness to as much of human history as Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ has, since its 1824 Vienna premiere. It was played at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; in the same year, students used it as a rallying call for solidarity in the Tiananmen Square uprising. The rearrangement by Herbert von Karajan was adopted as official anthem of the European Union in 1972 and remains so today, and every December since the 1960s, it has been played all over Japan to celebrate the close of the year, and to signify renewal and hope for the new year. The universality of Schiller’s message in his Ode, as well as the ingenuity behind its composition, has cemented this symphony — popularly called the ‘Choral’ – as one of the most important in the western musical literature.

The feeling of jubilation and togetherness, and victory over adversity, is what Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO)’s music director Adrian Tan hopes to share with both performers and audience tonight, as he brings the symphony not just to the audience, but to everyone in Singapore, in a mass performance that kicks off the nation’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. Two years ago, Adrian envisioned a choir made up of anyone and everyone — be they accomplished vocalists or bathroom singers — who would use this Ode to move and inspire a lay public that knows little classical music. In other words, a performance ‘by the people, for the people’ (reviewer’s own words, humour me please).

Two years later, a palpable sense of excitement buzzed in the air as the audience waited to enter the Esplanade Concert Hall, with teenagers chatting away excitedly and queueing up alongside more well-heeled gentry, certainly not a scene you would expect at other ‘serious’ orchestral concerts. True to Adrian’s prediction, by a show of hands, a large number of the audience had never set foot inside this crown jewel of their own country’s performing venues. That he had gotten them to even take this first step, is the true mark of success in introducing the community at large to classical music!

As Adrian explained (emceeing his own concerts seems to be his trademark now), programming any composition aside Beethoven’s Ninth will inadvertently make the other piece seem trite by comparison, so it was not by pure coincidence that Jeremy Monteiro’s Overture In C “The Story Of Singapore” was chosen as the prelude to the symphony. It was written as a musical journey through the history of Singapore, starting from the time the country was still a sleepy Malay fishing village, with the Orkestra Melayu Singapura Kompang adding visual and musical colour to the interpretation. After the British colonial period, the Japanese Occupation was introduced with the drone of zero-fighters, quickly transitioning to a modern cosmopolitan bustle before ending with a quote from Monteiro’s own now-signature tune “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”. It celebrates what the nation has achieved today, the brotherhood of Singaporeans, and serves as a call for unity in diversity – all themes shared with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Orchestrated by Nicolas Godefroy, the Overture was played beautifully by BHSO, and the only regret after hearing this piece was that it is really too brief. Of course, Adrian has (kind of) egged the composer to write another orchestral piece — for SG50, perhaps?

joybhsorehearsalThe stage was now set for the Ninth. Adrian’s vision of a performance that would transcend class, age, race, cultures, and even musical ability was immediately evident when the choir took the stage. Singaporeans in Peranakan batik and Scouts uniforms shared the choir gallery with expatriates dressed to the nines in gowns and kimonos. For a family experience of a lifetime, a helpful mom had brought her four children and her “tone-deaf” husband to sing along too. The youngest chorister — at six years old — could barely peek over the railings standing up! It was truly heartwarming to see the multitude of creeds and colours on stage, reflecting the many different walks of life that make up the unique social fabric of Singapore. And as the nebulous tremolo floated through the primordial cosmic nothingness before existence sprang forth, so the Symphony began.

A comprehensive musical analysis of the Ninth is not the goal of this review, nor is it needed. Suffice to say that Adrian Tan took the BHSO at a moderately brisk pace, not as daring as Gardiner/Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique , but dynamic enough to give a healthy sense of movement without sacrificing shape. There were no noticeable slips, and any trivial ones were easily forgotten in the epic context of the whole concert. The Scherzo was relentless in its drive, with horns in top form, as were the woodwinds in the Adagio; the expansive third movement was ravishing in its lyricism.

The fourth movement is without doubt the deal-breaker in any performance of the Ninth. The opening recitative, where cellos and basses examined the reappearance of themes from the first three movements in the winds, was played exquisitely, and the to-and-fro conversation was clear and thoughtful. When finally the “Ode To Joy” theme drifted in and took root around the orchestra, the buildup to the higher strings was truly like an ascension toward heaven. The first vocal proclamation of the symphony — “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und frundenvollere!” (“O friends! Not these sounds! But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!”) from bass Kong Ling Yi was a smidgen lightweight, but this was soon balanced out by a strong tenor in Raymond Lee. Alto soloist Cheryl Bains is only fifteen years old, but she could certainly hold her own alongside the more polished professional soprano Wendy Woon. The choice of such young soloists may raise a few eyebrows but is definitely precedented, seeing as Beethoven himself recruited 18-year-old Henriette Sontag and 21-year-old Caroline Unger to sing the soprano and alto roles respectively, at the work’s premiere which he conducted. Unger was credited with being the kind soul who had to turn the composer around to face the applauding audience, when he was still engrossed in conducting long after the performance had ended, since he was deaf and unable to hear a single note.

Read more posts on the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra here

Such personal tragedy might have prompted a lesser soul to write a depressing work, but by setting Friedrich Schiller’s utopian poem “Ode To Joy”, Beethoven had laid down his own hopes — amidst personal estrangement, illness and his devastating loss of hearing — for an Elysium of heavenly proportions, where all men were united as brothers, and millions rejoiced and exulted under the heavens. As the choir chimed in with “Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Weit!” (“Embrace now, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!”) the purity of sound from both choir and orchestra was a sure sign that Heaven must be near. Bringing us back down to earth with a Turkish band, conveying the composer’s intent that celebration was for the here and now; here, Adrian treaded the fine balance between heaven and earth to end at a brisk, jubilant clip.

Joyful indeed! The audience called for curtain calls several times, and choir mistress Khor Ai Ming must be credited for her hard work and dedication in preparing the choir, in a My Fair Lady-esque transformation from pedestrians coming in off the streets to one capable of singing German in three months. This was an equally daunting performance for a young conductor and a non-professional orchestra, but the amount of sheer joy, passion and enthusiasm radiating off the stage made this a truly transcendent performance. For what is music but the purest expression of joy? Beethoven demonstrated that all humankind can enjoy the same music, be they black or white, man or woman, young or old, saint or sinner, earthly or divine. Hearing the Ninth Symphony live is a transformative experience and no one should be left out for want of opportunity. This inclusiveness and accessibility is the one goal that Adrian Tan needed to score with his orchestra, and they have taken it for a home run.  Well done, and I am sure the BHSO will score again in their next concert — playing a symphony by local composer Leong Yoon Pin, a project which is particularly close to Adrian’s heart. Until then, adios to all my brothers!

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