We had a fun evening of beautiful ensemble music on Saturday! Even the typhoon stayed away so we were able to enjoy a varied programme of music about peace, tranquility, childhood friends, and “beauty and love”.
In our first full-length concert – entitled “Heaven + earth, Beauty + love: once more” – held at Asia Society, we were delighted to be able to present a 3-part programme. We are especially grateful to a number of much admired figures and teachers for being there to support and encourage our effort.
We first presented the “heaven + earth” part: 4 a cappella songs from 2 composers, one sacred and one secular each. We love both of the Saint-Saëns pieces: very much about beauty in symmetry, with an elegant Ave Verum followed by Calme des nuits, a song about the beauty in the silence and calmness of the evening and an epitome of atmospheric and simple beauty, both musical and textual (we also know that Saint-Saëns loved nature).
We then moved onto 2 pieces written for 8 voices plus solo(s), almost like “vocal concertos”, both by Ēriks Ešenvalds, the sacred O Salutaris Hostia and the secular Only in sleep, both reflective of the composer’s gift for attractive vocal layering. And yes, a cappella with 9 voices!
Only in sleep is a piece about childhood friends and we did its HK first performance last year – it is the 3rd time we’ve sung it publicly so it may be the final time for a little while as we move on to do new things. Many in the audience could see that this is a song much loved by The Classical Singers. In contrast, it is the first time we are singing O Salutaris Hostia and we were delighted to have invited soloist Zoe Yu joining us for the first-soprano part of the ethereal soprano duet and partnering with Julia Yan.
We chose the venue for its small chamber setting in a historical building, but it was definitely a dry acoustics environment that was not easy on the ears especially for a cappella pieces. One can hear every feature of the human voice without embellishment!
We then asked the audience to hear the piano “sing” almost literally: Brahms’ Liebeslieder waltzes Op 52 is a set of 18 charming and delightful waltzes of “love songs”, written for the 4-hand piano and an optional vocal quartet. The Chau twin sisters performed this piece on their own, inviting the audience to dance and sing with them!
After that, the Classical Singers took to the stage again, this time to present a number of songs by American composers around the theme of “beauty and love”. We first sang the deeply felt song by Randall Stroop, I am not yours, about the complications around love (poem by American poet Sara Teasdale). We then sang the first accompanied piece of the evening, Ballade to the Moon, by Daniel Elder, a young gifted composer who talks about creating “music that you can see”. The song asks us to “come sing with me!”. We then huddled around the piano in true chamber music fashion to render Morten Lauridsen’s much-loved Dirait-on, a gorgeous French-inspired melody around the French poem of Rainer Maria Rilke. This is the song that has received a lot of love! Some have also commented that it is wonderful to see the singers around the piano as if singing in someone’s drawing room. We love the interplay between the piano and the various parts in this piece, the many opportunities for rubatos, and note also that the composer enjoined us specifically to:
[pay attention to] the flexible tempo required and the tone should be light.
In the last song in the programme, we gave the HK first performance of Daniel Elder’s arrangement of “Twinkle, twinkle little star”, a song that ends in a dominant chord unresolved to the tonic, as if pointing forward (maybe to the next concert?)
If there were a unifying theme amongst these 4 songs, it is probably somewhat related to something that Lauridsen himself said, that he traces the musical tradition he is following to Brahms, Schubert and Schumann and their art songs.
We then brought together pianists and singers alike for a final special song that consists of 2 arrangements on Bach’s Prelude in C: a 4-hand rendition of Gounod’s version, followed by a Swedish arrangement that is totally unexpected (it took us a long time to get the score but we were inspired by the ingenuity in the arrangement).
Many in the audience have commented on the sublime beauty of the songs and that they can’t get the songs out of their heads! We on our part see simplicity and directness in the lyricism of these songs, as well as how the piano part is tightly knitted together with the voices and plays an instrumental role in creating the atmosphere of the piece.
Thank you to those who have complimented us on the programming – we’ve also loved putting this programme together and choosing the songs. It has also been fun to include songs written by living composers too as music is a living thing whether we are singing Mozart or a song by a highly gifted 31-year-old composer. Having a conversation with a composer while we are practicing one of his pieces is a privilege – and we have included some of what these composers have said directly to us in the programme notes (link below).
Thank you for being there to share the journey with us!
It was wonderful to bring together friends and fellow music-lovers from across the city of Hong Kong.
A PDF version of the programme notes is here.
Link to the pre-concert programme introduction is here.