The Classical Challenge

Decked with flowers and fruits in their hair to personify temperate seasons, the nymphs standing outside The Actors Studio Bangsar were unfortunately not enough to persuade many more people to give the Young KL Singers’ latest concert a try. At least not the evening I was there.

In the past, the songs presented in concert by the Young KL Singers (YKLS) have mostly been light, popular pieces from famous musicals by Roger & Hammerstein and Lloyd-Webber. And while the Simply Andrew Lloyd­-Webber and the Beat It, Sing It! concerts were reported to have been near sold-out performances, I was quite sure their latest concert did not enjoy as brisk a ticket sales as their other concerts which had been more ‘pop’. Titled Four Seasons (26-29, May 2005), their performance this time was in a more “classical” vein.

Four Seasons marked the culmination of the singers’ training under Susanna Saw and Mak Chi Hoe within the performance arts segment of The Actors Studio Academy (TASA). The programme was planned in four segments according to the four seasons of the year: spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Singing in concert for the first time and opening the programme was Darrel Chan from the Kuala Lumpur Children’s Choir with “Spring is Coming,” an aria from the opera Othone by G. F. Handel. Darrel’s voice was starting to change, but he still managed to sing credibly without major problems. The voice was clear and sweet but the performance was somewhat sullied by a strange Malaysian way of enunciation and by heavy-handed piano accompaniment that was way too loud for his light voice.

The KL Children’s Choir sang two other pieces and were excellent when they imitated the call of the kookaburra in “Laugh, Kookaburra.” They did it so seamlessly in coordination that one didn’t know from which end the sound was emerging. The other song the children sang with the YKLS supporting in the background was “I Believe in Springtime.” I was particularly impressed by this piece as it was driven with an impulse of innocence that was so refreshing. The singing by the children was crystal clear and was handled without adult sentimentality. I complimented Susanna on the splendid job she has done with the children because it is a known fact that children rank very high among the top three things that are really hard to train (the other two being animals and old people).

The second segment of the concert was about summer and all its sultry passions. One piece that I felt the YKLS performed well was George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. The singers obviously adored the piece – there were some magical moments when the close harmonies really came together.

The third segment was focused on autumn and one song that was outstanding was “Autumn Leaves”, arranged by Geneviene Wong for male chorus. The men who sang the piece were well synchronised; the colour of their voices were also suited with the impression of falling autumn leaves of many colours. I was actually quite taken in by Abdul Raslan Tahir’s voice, which could be picked out as it was of a distinct timbre and had a bright, unique colour. It is also evident that Geneviene Wong understood how to score properly for voices. She should be commissioned to arrange more works for voice.

The YKLS also attempted a rather difficult piece by Felix Mendelssohn called “Herbstlied” which they sang in German, but did not quite pull it off securely. Their German diction was sketchy at best. Still, they managed to stay together for most of the piece and ought to be encouraged for trying out a piece that was a little more advanced compared to their normal repertory.

The last segment was on winter and the piece that the audience enjoyed was the Puerto Rican song called “En El Portal de Belen.” The YKLS sang it with an air of festivity and with Hispanic flair. There were calls of encore at the end of the concert and the YKLS obliged with a cute Hokkien song (with synchronised rocking of heads) and a repeat of “I Believe in Springtime.”

There were also performances on the harp and on the violin. I do not entirely agree with a mixed sort of a programme but this did not spoil an otherwise surprisingly pleasant evening. Both soloists were technically competent: Khor Jee Fei on the harp and Christine Lean on the violin. There were times when Christine’s playing of Vivaldi’s “Autumn” tended towards sharpness, but this was adequately compensated by Geneviene’s deft accompaniment. And on the subject of accompaniment: accompanists are a rare breed, and those who can accompany singers well are even rarer. I feel that there is better sympathy and greater sensitivity between Geneviene’s piano accompaniment with instrumentalists than with solo singers.

I have a personal wish that I would like to express to the YKLS and to the KL Children’s Choir: try and commission Saidah Rastam to write a truly Malaysian piece for your performance. The 3rd Young Singers’ Choral Festival had “Hello” specially written by Saidah for them and perhaps this demanding piece could be attempted by the YKLS too. It should not only stop at the Choral Festival where it premiered.

It was a bit of a disappointment that not more people attended the performances.  It took Susanna and Chi Hoe 20 weeks of solid rehearsals for this particular production.  I was also told that because Four Seasons was geared towards a more “classical” programme, some singers pulled out. The general public was also not too keen on attending, in spite of sufficient media coverage. This then gives rise to the question: are we so unwittingly overdosed on pop culture that we are forced to respond with reflexive disdain for anything that is not lowbrow enough for the common man to grasp? Must the choral scene of Malaysia be defined only by Broadway, Beatles Hits and Disney tunes?

If a choir or a choral group starts out its performances by only performing popular numbers, gains some sort of fame by doing this and then switches to a more classical programme, there will certainly be some form of backlash. For fame, earned through the performance of pop songs solely, is a Faustian bargain for the producer and its artistes – they shall always be tyrannised by the bad tastes of the uninformed public.

What the YKLS and its music directors need to do is to persevere with a respectable concert programme that balances both classical and contemporary music with the view to change people’s mindsets and to liberate the “uninformed”. In fact, all choral group leaders need to go look carefully at pictures by Rembrandt and Renoir before they start a choir. There are not just actions in many of those paintings, but vision. And good vision goes a longer distance and is able to negotiate obstacles.


Lisa Ho leads a motley crew of singers called Cantus Musicus who channel Renaissance music and drink far too much wine.

First Published: 22.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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