Ode Post Mortem

4 min read

SSC 25th ANNIVERSARY
BEETHOVEN’S CHORAL SYMPHONY

DATE
May 6, 2005

FEATURING
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lim Yau conductor
Lim Yan piano
Tamara Matthews soprano
Graciela Araya mezzo-soprano
Paul Austin Kelly tenor
Johannes Mannov bass
Singapore Symphony Chorus
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Singapore
Singapore Bible College Chorale
Hallelujah Chorus

PROGRAMME
BEETHOVEN- Choral Fantasy (19′)
BEETHOVEN- Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (65′)

The first half of the concert was Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano and Chorus. This is a simple piece which anyone can enjoy on first hearing. Lim Yan, Lim Yau’s nephew, was the pianist. He is a fairly young guy (presently doing his national service I’m told) but in rehearsals he came across as confident and easy going.

The Fantasy went well. In rehearsals everyone had a lot of fun playing this piece. The theme is initially set by the piano then carried around the orchestra. I found the performance of the woodwinds particularly charming. I was sitting right behind the clarinets, and when they doubled up with the bassoons, they really found a groove that lifted the whole ensemble. It was great and the audience went into the intermission looking happy.

In the intermission, Nella Hunkin, the principal cellist said in all sincerity, “The sopranos sounded great this time: they’re weren’t flat! I guess they were saving it for the performance!”

In the second half we performed Beethoven’s 9th. I say half but the piece is 65 minutes compared to the mere 20 minutes of Fantasy. The 9th is actually a tough one to do for this kind of audience. Most people show up because (a) they know somebody in the choir and/or (b) they know a few bars of Ode to Joy – the 4th movement of the Symphony.

There’s a solid 50 minutes of music before you get to Ode. The second movement of the 9th is also fairly recognizable but really all these people want to hear is the last movement. People bring their kids ‘cus they figure it will be an easy one to wean them onto classical music with… NOT. If they’re lucky, the kids will sleep through the first three movements and not get restless.

In addition to the chorus, Ode includes 4 soloists. The first to sing is the bass. Johannes Mannov was absolutely brilliant – he has fantastic projection and tone. He was very quickly joined by the male voices of the choir who echo his shouts of “Freude” – Joy. He then sings the familiar tune and is joined by the entire choir for the “refrain.” The four soloists then take over and there is a bit of this soloists – choir – soloists for the rest of the piece. OK these are seriously abridged programme notes. But you get the idea.

It struck me that on several occasions, when the soloists were singing, they seemed to be slightly out of phase with the orchestra. The choir might have suffered the same problem but when you’re singing at the back of the stage, it’s not that easy to hear what the rest of the orchestra is doing.

The other soloists were not as brilliant as Mannov on the evening. This is a shame because in rehearsal, the soprano, Tamara Matthews, was fantastic. On her first night of rehearsal even Lim Yau was charmed enough to give her a big hug and I have NEVER seen him do that before in rehearsal ! The second night, however, her voice seemed to be going. Performance night I was told she was a bit weak and it sounded like she dropped her penultimate note in the run-up to the choir’s finale.

By this point the choir had already had one major flub which I was later told nobody in the audience picked up on. For those in the know, the second time we have to sing “Alle Menchen”, everyone was hesitant and the volume was seriously impaired. It was bizarre because the whole choir held back and we’d never made this mistake in rehearsal. I can only assume Lim Yau did something we didn’t expect or perhaps didn’t give us a cue he usually gives because the reaction of the choir was too uniform and instantaneous to explain it on random behavior within the choir.

Of course we’re supposed to be able to come in without being totally reliant on him – but we’re not a professional choir. I think we constantly surprise him on how dependant we are for his guidance. This comes down to lack of confidence on our part.

I’ve pointed out all the weaknesses of the performance but generally it went well. The audience didn’t exactly go wild but I think that was less in reaction to our performance as to the fact they were tired after sitting through 70 minutes of classical music when really they just wanted 20 minutes of Ode to Joy.

Personally, I cannot express what a huge privilege it is to sing this piece with such a brilliant conductor and fantastic orchestra. To me this isn’t simply about making music, it’s about reaching for something higher.