Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Mighty Messiah

Taken from The Star, Sunday, 27 December 2009.


A rare classical music gem was performed with great skill in KL last week.

Dec 17-20, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

YOU might not know it, but Handel is a lot like Vivaldi – you are more familiar with him than you think.

Take, for example, his “Hallelujah” chorus: it has featured in TV series and movies like Little Black Book, Someone like You, Runaway Bride, Only You, Dumb and Dumber, and Face/Off.

The German-English Baroque composer has also left his mark with other music, including Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Zadok the Priest, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, the “Largo” from the opera Xerxes and “For unto us a child is born” (from Messiah), that resonate not only in concert halls but in so many other parts of our lives.

The “Hallelujah” chorus is from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, probably the composer’s most enduring and beloved work and one of the mainstays of the Western choral repertoire.

(Completed in 1741 and with a libretto by Charles Jennens and entirely drawn from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Messiah, simply put, is a contemplation of the birth and death of Jesus Christ.)

Melding beautifully: The KLPac Orchestra led by Paul Baker, the choir and (from left, standing) Rachel Jonas King, Cecilia Yap, Gabrielle Maes, Solomon Chong and Cha Seng Tiang. – KLPac

That said, performances of Messiah in Malaysia are rare things, which is why the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s staging of the oratorio (a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists) was so welcome, especially since it featured the entire oratorio instead of just selections.

The performance featured soprano Cecilia Yap, alto Gabrielle Maes, tenor Solomon Chong and baritone Cha Seng Tiang, the 35-piece KLPac Orchestra guest conducted by Paul Baker, and a 40-strong, specially-assembled chorus.

I really enjoy visiting KLPac; I like its laidback yet committed approach to the arts and greatly appreciate its magnificent surroundings. What I find disappointing, though, is how badly its visitors can behave. Last Sunday’s matinee saw members of the public entering the hall while the performance was ongoing, and the same thing happened again after the interval.

Some might think this is no big deal, but I do think that this is rude and disruptive to those who take the trouble to be on time.

Then there is the issue of mobile phones. I am always amazed at how people think it’s all right to use their mobiles during shows. The couple next to me not only kept up a steady stream of text exchanges during the performance, but also answered calls twice. Frankly, I feel that if you are too important to remain incommunicado for a few hours, you should really stay away from events like this.

All said and done, I have to praise the KLPac for putting together a fantastic event, with excellent voices and steady conducting.

Alto Gabrielle Maes has a finely-modulated and distinct voice and, throughout the concert, sang with unflagging control and emotion, outstandingly in the arias “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “He was despised and rejected of men”.

The baritone Cha Seng Tiang was just as commanding, singing with a heartfelt passion that reached its peak in “Thou has gone up on high” and “The trumpet shall sound,” although I thought he struggled to keep up with the almost furious tempo of “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”

The tenor Solomon Chong was, I felt, the weakest of the four soloists. He has an undoubtedly fine voice but was let down by his enunciation – “rod of iron” came across as “a rod of ion,” while “O death, where is thy sting” sounded like “O death, where is my sting.

Cecilia Yap was a splendid soprano, who married talent and technique to great effect, hitting top notes with little effort and entrancing all with her impassioned singing, especially in her glorious version of “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Yap was also gracious enough to allow her understudy, Rachel Jonas-King, to demonstrate another fine voice in the making with an impressive “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”.

The real star for me, however, was the chorus, which sent shivers down my spine from its very first contribution, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”, and never once let its guard down to fluff a note.

All the four chorus voices – soprano, alto, bass and tenor – were in fine fettle, echoing and dovetailing with each other with consummate ease and elegance.

Working through all the voice was the KLPac Orchestra, which carried its burden of playing almost entirely throughout the two-and-a-half hour performance with indefatigable wit and grace.

Paul Baker, with 15 previous Messiah productions behind him and conducting for the first time in Malaysia, lead with a steady hand, charming both performers and the audience – exhorting the latter to stand and join in with the “Hallelujah” chorus.

It was, in all, an unforgettable show, where everything – even the lighting, used to great effect in the “Amen” finale when it highlighted each section of the chorus individually as it sang – went right and brilliantly so, fully deserving of the ultimate accolade, a standing ovation.