Concert Preview: TFI interviews conductor Seow Yibin and soprano Teng Xiang Ting on Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

With limited orchestra numbers allowed on stage due to Covid restrictions, we probably didn’t think that we would be enjoying a Mahler Symphony live anytime soon. But come 1st of May, the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) will be performing Klaus Simon’s chamber arrangement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony. While Mahler’s original orchestration calls for close to 100 musicians, there will be just 23 musicians in this concert. The Flying Inkpot chatted with conductor Seow Yibin and Soprano Teng Xiang Ting to get some insight into their approach to Mahler 4 and what they believe is that secret ingredient for any chamber group to thrive. 

Interview by Aileen Tang

[This interview has been edited for publication purposes]

The Flying Inkpot: Yibin, what are your thoughts on this chamber arrangement? How does it compare with the original?

Seow Yibin: I listened to the full Mahler 4 with the full orchestration and then I went to listen to the chamber arrangement. If you listen to the Mahler symphony in the full orchestral version, you really get the full impact of the sound and the mood of what Mahler wanted. The chamber version will allow you a chance to understand the bare bone structures of the work and hear some of the small details you may miss when there is so much going on in the full orchestral version.

TFI: You’ve played in Mahler 2, 3 and 8 and conducted parts of them, but this will be your first complete Mahler symphony in concert as conductor. So what is your approach to conducting this chamber version? 

SYB: When Klaus Simon arranged this chamber reduction, he said that he hopes to bring out the essence of Mahler’s original work through this simple version. So in some sense if we follow the chamber version, it should actually lead us to a microcosm of the big picture of Mahler 4. For example, there is a trumpet fanfare call that is now played by the oboe but in a strange way, it still has the same kind of stature as a trumpet fanfare. It should still give you that in a small miniature version. 

TFI: Would you then expect your musicians to be familiar with the full orchestral version? 

SYB: I would think so. Mahler is actually a storyteller of long stories, so it’s not easy to capture what’s going on without knowing the story beforehand. Knowing the “big” version will give the musicians some sense of the message and breadth of the work. So I do think it matters to know the whole programme and trajectory. This is especially with a chamber reduction where one instrument is supposed to play the parts originally written for several others. For example, the piano substituting for the harp or French horn has to have that original instrument in mind. 

TFI: Xiang Ting, this is your first singing with OMM. How did that come about? 

Teng Xiang Ting: I thought that my first time working with OMM would be August this year, singing Wagner but that has been postponed because of Covid (Ed: OMM was originally planning to perform Rheingold following their successful Singapore premiere of Die Walküre in January 2020). So I was really happy when they got in touch with me about Mahler. I had always wished I could perform this Mahler symphony live. I’ve actually sung it twice before but never for a performance. Both times were when I was in the UK – once for conducting fellowship auditions and another time for a class for conducting students. At that time, I was already thinking that the music is so beautiful and I wish I could perform it. So my dream came true when OMM got in touch and I’m really thankful to be able to do it!

TFI: What is your take on the text, with the child’s vision of Heaven alongside descriptions of the slaughter of animals?

TXT: I think it’s really a matter of interpretation. Even when I was learning it, depending on who the conductor was, they all had a different take. I take it as a very naive and innocent observation of what goes on – just very factually. I know the slaughtering of the lambs can sound quite dark and certainly some commentators have said that this provides a dark twist to the music. But I wonder if it’s possible to just take it as a child observing the scenes of sacrifice with that element of innocence and naïveté. 

TFI: What, for you, is the biggest challenge in singing this piece?

TXT: One challenge for me singing this piece is that the tessitura sits a little bit low. Even though it’s written for soprano, if you look at some of the singers who have performed this work over the last few decades, quite a lot of them are actually mezzo-sopranos. It’s pretty much lower and it’s also really quite interesting to explore how to retain this child-like innocence without being too heavy in the voice. 

TFI: The projects you’ve been involved in here in Singapore have been more Italian opera than Mahler or even German lieder. So now you can set us right, because you have actually sung an extensive range of repertoire!

TXT: I think I’m a very curious and greedy singer! I like many different languages and composers across the wide spectrum of time. I’m really grateful for my education in the UK because it exposed me to a really wide range of music. That was where I had my first Baroque lesson and where I delved deeper into the world of lieder and French songs. In the past five or six years I’ve been overseas, I’ve done a lot of lieder and this is a genre I really love. I guess the media here tends to focus more on the more widely advertised concerts. But I have also been singing with the Sing Song Club in Singapore and we did a Poulenc concert in November 2019. There is so much music out there that one can never call themselves an expert. It’s still a matter of exploration for me! 

TFI: Would you say then that Singapore is perhaps less “enlightened” when it comes to our appreciation of the whole range of vocal music?

TXT: I think it depends on which demographic we’re talking about here. For example, the students at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and NAFA get a lot of exposure to lieder. But in terms of reaching the larger audience, I do think that we can definitely do more and to share more. And I think now is a super time for doing that because Covid has meant we are limited to ensemble and chamber works so there is no better time than now to do these kinds of repertoire.

TFI: I’ve also heard musicians say that this is the best time to showcase a lot of chamber works that have previously been swept aside or ignored!

Yibin, how challenging have all the safe management measures and musicians being spaced one or two metres apart been for you?

SYB: Actually I think the challenge lies with the musicians themselves even more than with the conductor. The musicians have become used to sitting a certain distance apart from each other, and have calibrated to the sound scape and balance that they have been so familiar with after many years of playing together. Imagine you are an oboist and you have become so familiar with how much to play when the flautist is playing at a certain level; but now with a two-metre distance, you have no reference point at all. So the conductor has it hard when the musicians have it hard. The role of the conductor also changes. For example, how should I conduct if it is a chamber version? Do I really want to dictate as much? Should I instead let them find their own pulse and own sound?

I have to say that OMM’s Artistic Development team really spent a lot of time trying to find the right chamber works. The wrong chamber work may lead to further aggravation of the problem. If anything, I think for some conductors, the challenge is in picking the works. But we’re very fortunate that we have a very informed Artistic Development team. 

TFI: Speaking of chamber, several chamber orchestras and opera groups have sprung up over the past few years but sadly, some have not been able to last beyond the first performance. What do you think is that magic key that allows them to succeed past that first performance?

TXT: I think a big thing has to do with the funding – the ability to get funding to sustain themselves. It’s also having the stamina to just keep going because there are so many elements to a successful concert – a great conductor and performers, the music, venue and marketing, to name a few.

SYB: I think it’s not just the financial resources but also the human resource. And the secret ingredient is the desire to keep going. 

TXT: It’s bulldozing ahead when you have very few resources and just finding that fire to keep going.

Orchestra of the Music Makers present “Mahler 4 Live!” on Saturday 1st May (4pm) and Sunday 2nd May (4pm and 8pm) at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets are available from SISTIC. 

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