Sunday, December 1, 2013

An Interview with Reuben Lai and Vox Camerata Members

So I was planning to do an interview with Reuben Lai, known mostly as a professional tenor but also works as a choral conductor. He will be guest-conducting Vox Camerata's Christmas concert this coming Saturday 7 December (Saturday), featuring Poulenc's Four Christmas Motets followed by Britten's A Ceremony of Carols.

A true democratic leader, he wanted to have a few choral members chip in their thoughts too, so we included committee members Henry Lim and April Tan as well. Here's what we talked about:

Steven: Hi guys, thanks for chatting with me today. I should think that the choir is pretty familiar with the Ceremony of Carols by now, what are your thoughts of the piece?

Henry: I think my first though after Reuben ran through the pieces with us was 'omg'.

Steven: in what way? was it really difficult?

Henry: I don't think so, but I guess I've not had the same mileage of exposure to classical music so perhaps there was some initial difficulty mentally visualising how it'll come together.

Reuben: I think it might have been that it sounded rather different to other pieces they had done.

Henry: but once it comes together, its like tapestry. I think it was a great pick to challenge and expose the choir further musically.

Steven: in what way?

Reuben: Well the ceremony of carols is one extended work, much like oratorio.

Henry: yeah, so the focus of attention is a lot more drawn out.

Steven: so what are the particular challenges that the music poses?

Reuben: The tuning can be challenging. Britten's a master of judging tone colours. Some of the more esoteric sounding parts only start to sense once you are fully invested in his sound world. It took a little time.

Henry: and each movement tends to bring with it a different texture. Like Reuben mentioned, it brings with it the challenge of having to adjust ourselves as the music develops.

Steven: And is the harp accompaniment helpful with the tuning, or more of a hindrance?

Henry: I'd think it's like the golden thread that gels the piece together

Reuben: The harp is a great help! The effect of the strings vibrating gives it a shimmer that a piano would not have

Henry: I can only describe it as it gives a shine to the music

Steven: Who's the harpist that will be performing with you?

Reuben: The harpist and the soloists for the Ceremony segment are all students at SOTA.

Reuben Lai
Steven: Reuben, what made you decide to choose this piece? I know its Anniversary year and all, but why this piece for this choir, and for concert?

Reuben: Well, the anniversary year was the excuse. I thought it would provide the choir a challenge but not be insurmountable.

Steven: Have you worked with this choir previously?

Reuben: Not conducting. Shaun Teo their conductor was on exchange overseas. I volunteered to babysit the choir this year.

Steven: I see. then in what other capacity?

Henry: we've had his help in coaching the choir in previous occasions, but this year gave us the opportunity with work with him for a full performance.

Steven: this next question is for Reuben: I have been listening to the War Requiem on my iPhone and listening to Ceremony of Carols on Youtube for this interview. Its amazing how much breadth and imagination goes into his music. Is there a particular 'Britten style' that you can describe?

Reuben: Yes, he has a poet's soul. The colours that he draws out of the texts are incredibly varied. One of the characteristics of Britten's music is also the use of bitonality where two keys clash together. His usage of it is always dramatic, using the contradictions in the harmonies to underline the sometimes complex emotional palettes that surround all the texts.

Steven: I can imagine that bitonality would be difficult for musicians to master, any thoughts from the singers about this aspect of his music?

Reuben: Again, once you lock on to it, it makes complete sense. What do you think guys?

April: Agreed. It took a lot of getting used to initially, especially where bitonality is concerned, but with every rehearsal that we have had, everything began to fall into place.

Steven: I would like to know more about Vox Camerata, how long have you guys been around, what kind of performances and repertoire do you do?

Henry: This is our 9th year and we actually started out as a small community group introducing choral music like Palestrina to people who may not have a choral background, but are interested to explore. Over the years we've done performances pretty much annually, at the Esplanade Recital Studio and The Arts House. Repertoire wise we've done a range actually, from earlier music like Joseph Rheinberger to Morten Lauridsen, Ola Gjeilo.

Steven: mostly at end of the year?

Henry: Not quite, depending on our general choir member's schedules we've had some of our concerts earlier in June or August as well.

Steven: Any special requirements that newcomers must show when auditioning?

Henry: no special requirements; while we do test for basic abilities in terms of pitch, range testing and general musicality, I think perhaps the most important is enthusiasm to learn.

Steven: So, how's Reuben as a conductor?

Reuben: He has arm endurance.

Henry: haha, and skin endurance, for when we hit the wrong notes during practices! Not all of us sight sing or have a background in music. He is dreadfully humourous, sometimes corny. so I think generally lifting notes with our cheeks isn't the most difficult thing to do.

April: Very patient, actually. Keeping in mind that our repertoire this Christmas is not at all easy, especially for a community choir that comprises amateur singers from all walks of life. I think Reuben has been very patient as a conductor, and wonderful as a vocal coach.

Reuben: Flattery will get you everywhere.

April: Aye aye, Cap'n!

Steven: alright, same question to the conductor, how would you rate your work experience with Vox Camerata?

Reuben: Very rewarding. Especially when you watch the group overcome obstacles as a team.

Steven: So last question then, what can audiences expect when they come for the concert on 7 Dec?

Reuben: A heartfelt concert.

Henry: Its a great selection of music and the members of Vox have poured our time and heart into this music making journey. we hope it'll resound with the audience and entice them to come join us again next time, or in fact, come make music with us.

April: Well, I do concur with Henry that it's a wonderful selection of music this year. It's a different take on Christmas as opposed to the usual selection of Christmas music, and the culmination of combined effort we have poured into this concert. It is also another avenue of exposure for the young talents (harpist and soloists) we have on board to help us with A Ceremony of Carols, and we hope that the audience will enjoy their performances (and ours!) as much as we have enjoyed working with them.

Steven: Thanks April. Thanks guys for chatting, its been a great interview. Have a great show on 7 December!

Vox Camerata's A Ceremony of Carols is on 7 December 2013 (Saturday). Find out how to get tickets on the Events Page!

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