Saturday, December 25, 2010

Messiah by the Voices of the East Indies - 22 Dec 2010

Merry Christmas to every reader of The Mad Scene! For our Christmas special here's an account of the Voices of the East Indies's performance of Messiah, as written by a new contributor Hawk Liu:


Handel – Messiah
Yap Shing Min – soprano
Phua Ee Kia – countertenor
Melvin Tan – tenor
William Lim – bass
The Voices and Orchestra of the East Indies,
Ng Tian Hui - conductor

22nd December 2010
The Chamber, The Arts House at Old Parliament House

A Review by Hawk Liu

I had the occasion to attend a most enjoyable performance of Handel’s Messiah with the almost complete Part One and some selections from Part Two and Three. First, the choice of the The Chamber as a performance venue is a really good one. The small forces, with 3 to 4 voices per part in the chorus and 2 to 3 pieces per part in the orchestra made a great sound in the venue. The sound was warm and distrubuted nicely. In the chorus, the sopranos were good and blending well together. The altos were steady most of the time but might be a little weak in some passages due to the range, but true altos are hard to come by in Singapore. As to the balance of male – female voices, even with 3 per part for men and 4 per part for women, the men over powered the women easily. I wonder if putting the men behind the women might have helped the balance more.

A special highlight for me is For unto us a child is born, because at this point I feel that all the performance elements started to work really well after what I thought was a rocky start (in terms of blending) by the tenor and bass sections in the first 2 choruses. It didn’t help when the tenors had much brighter voices compared to the basses.

As for the Hallelujah Chorus – it was great! Considering the small forces used, it was a big sound. This was one number where the brighter tones of the tenors helped. The sopranos certainly didn’t let up either with their ascendings ‘king of kings’ section. What a joy. Even the lack of  timpanis went unnoticed amidst the ra ra everyone was providing. It was only toward the end of the number that I noticed how the mid range and lower mid pitches were missing. As usual, the audience obeyed the tradition of getting onto their feet during the chorus. Well, not everyone did – there were renegades, like myself. I was just keeping to the spirit of the baroque phenomenon of innovation and experimentation by sitting down when others are following traditions…

The orchestra, despite it’s small size, gave a confident performance. They provided a warm sound throughout. I must comment, however, that having less than 4 per part, particularly in the strings, would pose problems with pitch blending and there was certainly a number of places where that was the case. I do like how the oboes helped the orchestra blend the sound together with their steady tones. Well done. Not all ran well though – at one point, the lower strings were out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, having lost their place in the score for quite a number of bars in one of the chorus numbers.But I am pleased to note that the chorus went on as strong as ever as if nothing had happened. They went on without losing their intensity of performance and of course everyone came together at the end. Special mention goes to the principal violinist for playing the rock solid accompaniment in some of the arias. I have never heard solo accompaniments in the many Messiahs I have ever heard and this was certainly very refreshing. Thanks for making it happen. There is one doubt in my mind about the use of the double bass in this particularly small ensemble. Although it added a firm lower sound in the chorus numbers, I did wish it wasn’t used in the arias, especially in the ones where the solo violin and solo cello were used – just a question of tonal balance.

At the beginning of the concert, 3 soloists appeared during the walk-in, which left me wondering where the soprano was. Anyhow, Melvin Tan the tenor gave a fearless run of the 2 opening solo numbers. It’s a bright sound and his higher vocal tessitura lent itself well to the music, especially in Ev'ry valley and Thou shalt break them. The latter number was heroic and Melvin certainly convinced us that ‘thou wouldst DASH them’ with the final high A on the word. There were interesting embellishments used too. Yes, all the melismas went splendidly, not a beat was missed. Oh, diction was immaculate. There was a slight accident of placement for a mere split second in comfort ye but it was just a mere split second. Special mention must be made of the fact that after his solos Melvin walked briskly to the chorus to join in for all the chorus numbers during the performance!

The next soloist that sang was William Lim. With steady, warm and expressive tones, he gave a stable performance for all his arias. Thus saith the Lord was thoroughly enjoyable with all the runs in place. Certainly a version I would listen to again. In For behold, darkness shall cover the earth I did wish it was a more intense start in terms of dynamics. Personally, I would have like a bit more vocal sound in the first phrases of the number. It did get more intense at the end of the phrase ‘but the Lord shall arise’. A later number, Why do the nations, was intense thoughout – I like ‘intense’ singing, and isn’t baroque music all about passion and affective expressions? Oh, yes, bravo to William, for doing the last phrase in Why do the nations without a stop for breath, or did you trick us into believing you didn’t breathe? Thoroughly enjoyable arias, except for once in both Thus saith the Lord and Why do the nations where the conductor and singer were trying to coordinate tempi in the melismas. I would have preferred if the orchestra just played thru in strict tempi for those 2 spots. The tempo in The people who walked in darkness is just right –  A good collaboration of the forces!

But who may abide the day of His coming is my favourite number from Messiah and I had looked forward to hearing it. Ee Kia, the countertneor, had beautiful sweet tones and made the aria lovely to listen to. My friend was in tears listening to the voice. That being said, there was slight sychronising problems with the orchestra in the middle of the prestissimo section but he recovered well. I was particularly delighted with the inclusion of the very rare version of Thou art gone up on high sung by Ee Kia. I have heard countless versions of Messiah and never came across this version of the aria. What a treat! Thanks to Ee Kia and also to conductor Tian Hui for choosing to do this version!

The mystery of the missing soprano was solved when Shing Min walked down to the soloist’s position from the chorus for the narrative of the nativity story. Her vocal projection was bigger than her small frame. Diction was immaculate. The timbre was a bit steely and bright but yet warm in interpretation. I did a double take when she stole 2 breaths in the long melisma of Rejoice greatly without missing any notes!! How was that possible?

As for the overall performance, I am certainly grateful to be watching such a good performance of the work by a small but yet competent force, despite a number of ‘accidents’. The choice of performance space, again, was wonderful. For me, the general tempi was too slow for some numbers, such as the slow section of the sinfonia (might be ok for larger forces), But who may abide, Let us break their bonds and thou art gone up on high. Nonetheless, thank you, Tian Hui and company, for putting on a most enjoyable performance. More of this please!

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