The Bird of Time
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Victoria Concert Hall
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, led by Lim Yau, marked their 20th anniversary with a concert in Victoria Concert Hall on Sunday, in what was probably the first choral concert since the opening of the hall after a 4-year-long refurbishment.
The concert programme was made up entirely of Asian a capella music, featuring a varied selection of works by well-known composers. Titled The Bird of Time, the Singaporean premiere of local composer Zechariah Goh’s Péng (鵬), based on a Chinese fable about the metamorphosis of a large fish into a large bird, was an apt opening to the concert. Perhaps due to nerves, the composition’s ambiguous opening, the fact that the composer was in the audience, or a combination of all three, the choir sounded unsettled and was initially off to a shaky start. Despite that, they soon gained the confidence needed to portray Goh’s highly imaginative word-painting which made use of aleatory, depicting the grandeur and majesty of the large bird as it took flight for the heavens.
The next work on the programme was Rubáiyát, a set of six pieces by Japanese composer Takatomi Nobunaga. Its text was derived from the quatrains of Renaissance philosopher Omar Khayyám, translated from Persian into English then Japanese, and then set in song. Having gone through such transformations in the text, much of the Persian element was also lost in the music. What transpired in the music was the heavy influence of the Western choral tradition, blended with Japanese harmonies. Taking listeners on a wisdom-filled journey from the plainchant-like beginning to the vast expanse of sonority and luscious harmony, sanity to madness, each member of TPCC showed that they were proficient soloists in their own right, yet able to blend beautifully together.
These fine qualities were also showcased in Filipino composer Francisco Feliciano’s setting of Psalm 23 in Tagalog instead if the usual English or Latin. The novel juxtaposition of plainchant with Tagalog was further enhanced by the sweet and angelic solos from Isyana Sarasvati. Pamugun, which closed the concert and was also by Feliciano, was rhythmically tight but lacking in character. The mocking of the sparrow as it taunted the hunter could have been much better characterised. Instead of imitating the raw, bright timbres of the Kulintang, the choir looked visibly tired and sounded a tad too polite and polished.
Fairing much better were the two Korean works by Lee Geon Yong. In his Four Songs Without Words, the ethereal harmonies of the outer and more contemplative songs were delightfully contrasted with the more active inner movements, which were a mimicry of sounds and instruments. With such a quirky title as Buckwheat Jelly for Sale, the second was somewhat a soundscape of typical day on a Korean street two or three decades ago. The haggling and sounds of tofu and taffy sellers plying their trade was heightened by the use of percussion – tambourines, gongs and bells – but alas, the tambourines were a little too loud and occasionally drowned out the choir.
Chen Yi’s arrangement of the traditional Korean folk tune Arirang was soulfully dished out as an encore. Happy 20th birthday TPCC, and wishing you many more years of music-making!