Where inspiration failed and where it succeeded

By A.S.H. Smyth

Last Saturday’s Colombo Philharmonic Choir gig was sold to me almost solely on the strength of the acoustic in the Ladies’ College chapel - I confess I was also in a hurry to hear some good church music sung properly. In a church.

In which respect, I reckon the evening scored 2/3. 66%. Near enough full marks for being in an ecclesiastical venue (NB open doors destroy the natural resonance of the building), and about half each for the nice repertoire (mostly) and the singing (ditto). Also, a good length (albeit see ‘repertoire’).
Manilal Weerakoon’s Philharmonic is/are a relatively young bunch, with some good individual voices (which oughtn’t, of course, to be individually audible). But there are a few things they need to work on in order to do themselves justice. The male ranks, basses especially, make a way dark sound.

They seem to be trying too hard with the Anglican RP (try too hard, period), and come over sounding like Art Malik with a head cold. Their opening number, John Travers’ psalmic O Worship the Lord, took a hit here. The second piece, Byrd’s aggressively chromatic Ave Verum, suffered from straining tenors. Again, the remedy: try less hard. The third, Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, was unforgivably sundered in the leading – and renownedly moving – entry by the basses lowing like beeves…

The Cantique has a near-Pavlovian power for me (long story involving a happy life as a chorister and a long weekend on a South African beach), and will never fail to bring a tear to mine eyes. But I was riled. This isn’t just a matter of vocal taste (I mean, have you heard recordings of singers from even 20 years back?). Cloudy singing actually interferes with The Word(s). Literally. Racine’s opening line is (in Rutter’s workmanlike translation) ‘O divine word above…’; it took me about 30 seconds to work out which language the piece was being sung in. [And how’s this for a billing? ‘Cantique de Jean Racine (words by Jean Racine)’] In the context of sacred music, verbal incoherence constitutes a problem.

Did they chicken out of Beethoven’s The Heavens Are Declaring? No declaration forthcame. And so on to Stainer’s ‘God so loved the world’. The Crucifixion is no work of genius, but it was nicely sung – that sense of mourning and grace and gratitude combined. The text, though (stop me when you see where this is going…) was not helped by earnest over-enunciation in the soprano/alto lines. ’God sent not his son into the world to con-DEMN the world.’ Yes, that is where the stress falls; but it falls there naturally. If there’s one thing the Victorians composers do well it’s making sure you can’t possibly miss a syllable of their blatantly sentimental text. Hammering the words home sounds like kids reading verse.

Lord God of Hosts Eternal is pastiche Brahms, but since it’s actually by Brahms… what to do? There was some lovely harmonic wash, but also some jerky passing of the tune from part to part. This may have been Brahms (age 16)’s fault; but the choir did not sound confident dealing with it, and this took its toll, in terms of both pitch and the clarity of entries.

Charith Peris tackled Bizet’s (inevitably) operatic Agnus Dei with youthful vigour and a clean tone. In that order, I think. His voice is promising, and comfortable enough in the higher range; but it’s also a young voice, with correspondingly little projection or sustain. Plenty of time to work on that; but meanwhile someone ought to tell him that he can’t just give it beans on the high notes, Domingo-style, and expect the audience to clap. (Oh, whom am I kidding… Course he can.)

Mendelssohn’s Nunc Dimittis. Again, despite the exceptionally well-known text, I honestly couldn’t tell English from Latin (and/or vice versa). And – again, again – too much bombast: ‘AND to BE the GLOry…’ These words ought to sing themselves.

Some more Mendelssohn. ‘The Lord Hath Commanded’, from As Pants the Hart. The male chorus harmonised clumsily like a 1920s glee club. The soloist – Manique Goonewardene – had a sweet, clear voice, full of the innocence (vocal, anyway) of a boy treble. Which was nice; but my eyes and ears were telling me different things. (If you want a treble, why not book a treble?)

Mendelssohn. AGAIN. O God Look Down From Heaven – another masterpiece of uninspiration. In four parts! A Eponymous. Sounded like it was coming apart. Choir out of time with organ and with each other. Suspensions have to be taut (cf. ‘heart strings’) or the musical edifice can’t sustain its own weight. Here was spaghetti. Wet spaghetti. Sops hit too hard on entries, at cost to the tone.

B Sanjeev Niles solo, ‘The Lord is Compassionate’. Perhaps those in the front row knew what was going on here. But recitative = WORDS. The recit., put bluntly, is where the story is. The Lord may well be compassionate, but I only knew because the programme told it so.

C ‘As Silver sev’n time in the fire is tried’. Cut? Or did I nod off? D ‘Do thou, O God, protect us all’. Good effort from the choir to provide a rousing finale, but the Clavinova-style organ packed little punch (in general, neither organ nor organist contributed much). Without huge motivating force, cantatas are rudderless vessels, half-finished oratorio. This one drifted, becalmed, until the ending came out of nowhere, so abrupt that I forgot to be glad of it.

A ranging celebration of (the complete history of) sacred music doesn’t really justify more than one piece by any composer. But three bits of Mendelssohn is at least two too many – and it began to feel like we’d be listening to the same piece on a loop.

In short, 34% deducted for 34% of the concert being ropey Mendelssohn. Ah! Herr Beethoven, I presume? They’d rehearsed this one, and it was a good sing, confidently delivered. Not quiet, or subtle (no coincidence there); but a solid, tuneful, hearty chorus, which just about served to pull the Colombo Philharmonic Choir back from the brink. If only it had all been like this.

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