Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sumi Jo + AAM in Review

16th May 2011
Concert Hall, Esplanade

Written by Hawk Liu

The glorious sound of the Academy of Ancient Music, using authentic instruments, opened the all-Baroque concert with Handel's Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 2. (Why opus 3 and not the more interesting and superior opus 6 concerti! Arrgh !)

As I was saying, the sound of the ensemble was glorious from start to finish. For those of you who are interested, there were 4 first violins, 4 seconds, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double bass, 2 oboes, 1 bassoon, 1 harpsichord, and 1 trumpet that came in only for the solos. The balance was perfect. About everything was perfect. All the strings were using gut strings and they are definitely great for articularion notes. Remembering my experiences using gut strings, I think the gut gave stronger incisive tones and exciting vibrations. Also, I made a point to listen to how 2 cellos and a doublebass would do - just the right amount of bass! Oh, I forgot about the theorbo - that 'lute' like thingie (as my friend put it) with an extension section for lower strings. The instrument was so soft I couldn't hear it most of the time. The pleasure of it's beautiful tones came only when it, with the harpsichord, were the only only instruments accompanyng Sumi Jo in Purcell's Music for a While. It was an exquisite piece, with embellisments I've had not heard another singer put in. It was great listening to 2 rare instruments live with the singer as a trio. Pleasure is the word.

Albinoni's concerto in C for 2 oboes op 9 no 9 really highlighted the beauty of the solo instruments. The 2 soloists were animated and competent. It was certainly a great display of an instrument seldom heard in our concert hall.

The second half started with Purcell's Suite from The Fairy Queen. Lovely pieces. I can't say enough good things about the magnificent Academy of Ancient Music with their wonderful instruments - entries were spot on, balance always good, tempi well chosen (except in Sonata a 5 - but that's only my opinion). Another Handel opus 3 (no. 5) was played in the 2nd half of the concert. (yawn - why not opus 6...). Alright, I did find some interesting moments in the concerto.

The only piece that didn't do it for me was Handel's Sonata no. 5. I always saw the first movement of this piece as a poignant and meloncholic one. The ensemble here took it quite brisk with the effect of it being too happy and frivolous. I almost wanted to tell the players not to smile ....too happy! Also, the solo violinist, in various places put in some 'late romantic'-like rubatos in both tempi and dynamics. I felt uneasy. However, in the rest of the movements, they were back in business. In fact, they were really exciting in the last movement where they brought out the motives well.

The programme ended with the ever popular Arrival of Queen Sheba. As usual, very exciting playing! Wish the piece was longer!

The format of the concert was the Academy playing one or two suites and Sumi Jo singing one or two pieces and so they alternated. As a vocal junkie (next paragraph for explanation), I found it hard to appreciate the concert that alternated vocal and instrumental pieces. To me, It's a bit like juxtaposing pop songs and opera arias in an alternate order in a concert. Hmm...difficult.....

Vocal Junkies - I learned that term a long time ago from another junkie - classical music enthusiasts who love listening to solo voices (usually operatic ones). We are the ones who would want to listen to a concert of solo voice(s) with no overtures or sonatas or any instrumental interludes between the vocal pieces. It's not that we don't enjoy the orchestral sounds, we did come to a Sumi Jo concert to just listen to Sumi Jo and anything else would be a delay of reaching that goal! (I imagine other musicians throwing stones at me). Don't get me wrong, it was a great treat hearing the amazing Academy play but I did wish it didn't play half the programme in a concert which would be well attended by vocal junkies. I am not alone in this respect.

A little bit about the acoustics of the concert hall. I find it too cavernous. The instruments did sound as if they were playing in a hall too large for their sound. Instruments and voices do not articulate well in the huge space and that had an overall sound that was less focused. It sounded like the reverb in a recording turned up just a notch too high.

Sumi Jo - this would be the first time I was hearing her live. What a treat - great silvery tones, a pure upper register, secure low notes, and a great smile! Oh, yes, there were 3 dresses! The first concert half had her in a shiny red gown that also came with giant lacy frills. She came into the second concert half with a most beautiful blue and while gown which she had to literally carry the lower half of while walking onto the concert stage. It had giant lacy frills. The third dress was a gold sequined gown. Yes, it came with giant lacy frills too! I see a theme here. She took a bow with the last gown and the audience obliged with enthusiastic applause.

Vivaldi's Nulla in munda pax was a joy, as was every other piece she sang! It was a polished gem with enjoyable embellishments in the da capo. Every low note was audible and secure.

Handel's Tornami a vegheggiar was exciting. This piece had the effect of making me smile every time I heard its introduction and I didn't stop smiling the whole way through the piece that night. The B section ended with a lovely cadenza. She did trip on a high note here. The da capo was magnificent. I was glad she didn't copy Joan Sutherland's embellishments here (overused by many singers) and I was kept on my toes, listening to interesting runs she came up with. The crowning glory was in the last cadenza. This time, she had this high note going on a surging long crescendo which went into subito piano with no lost of tone intensity! I missed a heart beat there!

Vivaldi's sposa, son disprezzata ended the first concert half. Although not taken too fast, I did wish for more 'sadness' in the interpretation. At this point, I did notice her putting in pianissimos in random places - and this happened in most of the other pieces too. I suppose the pianissimos might make sense in a small venue but I think it's hard to justify pianissimos in a 'cavernous' hall where the beauty of any pianissimos would be missed. Also, the choice of pianissimo placement seemed rather random for most parts. Sigh...

The trumpet came on to accompany on Handel's Let the bright Seraphim. This piece was always a crowd pleaser, so I waited excitedly to hear both singer and the authentic trumpet do their magic. I was duly rewarded with joyful music; incredible, articulate trumpet tones and exciting virtuosic singing. The piece is notorious for it's awkward breathing points, and Sumi Jo put us at ease with her fearless negotiation of those points, as well as with her fearless runs.

I waited eagerly for Sumi Jo's last programmed piece - Vivaldi's agitata, da due venti - very popular in the last decade with many singers. It's got fiendish interval jumps, unforgiving runs and mutliple, rapid, repeated notes. Due to the low vocal range of the piece, it enjoyed much success with mezzo sopranos. Well, the virtuosity held no fear for Sumi Jo and every note was there. The rapid, repeated notes were strong and sure. However, I noticed her body physically heaving for most of the runs. The interval jumps had near inaudible low notes (difficult for sopranos perhaps). The da capo was a good home run though. The higher flying embellishment notes were easy and always exciting. It was a great finish with the soprano beaming there. Lascia ch'io pianga as an encore piece was exquisite, apart from a few random pianissimos. (Sigh again.) For this piece she did put in an extra pound of passion. She sang full out in the last encore (Eternal source of light) with two extra pounds of passion - the piece's notes lying very nicely for her comfortable range and she ended with the highest note of the night!

Sumi Jo had an exquisite and skillful instrument. Although a light voice, it carried very well in the 'cavernous' (repetition intended) concert hall. There were notes a plenty where the voice floated effortlessly out of her and delivered to the spaces. The top register was always pure and beautiful. I did notice the voice taking up a variety of vocal timbre when she used different vowels because of the text, causing uneven vocal colours within single phrases. All in all, it was an experience to listen to a great voice doing its thing! Brava!

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