Handel’s <i>Messiah</i> with the “all-new” Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus


The Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus rejoices in celebrating its resurrection rightly in Easter with a massive Messiah.

From the archive: the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus Concert in 1993.

From the archive: the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus Concert in 1993.

The concert leaflet does not feel shy about the chorus’ resurrection from its troubled past. The chorus was once a fixture of Hong Kong classical music scene almost two decades ago and enjoyed the prestige in performing some of the most challenging symphonic choral works: Leonard Bernstein’s Chicester Psalms in 1993 and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in 1994, just to name two in my own archival record. The chorus had her own concert in St. John’s Cathedral.

With a two-decade break, the chorus should be considered new in every aspect. Philip Chu, now the young chorus master whose shiny résumé includes leading Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and singing in the chorus that produces the fleeting sounds in the game Diablo III, is so young that would probably be a boy at the time of the chorus’ demise. Please do not mistake my age: I was a boy back in 1993 and I play a lot Diablo III in my leisure too. Compare the chorus now and then is as fruitless as framing everything now to good golden days.

As a celebration of its resurrection, this Messiah takes a mass chorus approach: over 150 members in the choir and a very 50-strong strings section. While the performing force easily resembles one from a pre-1970s fashion, the music is not intended to be that expressive. The arias are unoperatic, the strings dry and crisp in articulations, all the themes unembellished. The performance is a quick one, finishes in just two hours — the tempi are generally fast and upbeat, and the deliberately smooth transition from movement to movement is also a factor.

The chorus first trumpets with And the Glory of the Lord, a moderately vigorous work which allows the chorus to demonstrate its grasp on articulating the melodies. The singers do well in this regard, and generally so, with substantial discipline. The chorus gradually takes better shape and intensity as it proceeds through more difficult numbers, like the long-winded For Unto Us a Child is Born. With this fugue the imbalance of fewer number of men compared to women first becomes evident. The tenor is particularly vulnerable, sometimes fails to reach a uniform voice and relax in reaching climatic point. The bass is having slightly more number of men than tenor, and it appears to be stronger in making a solid ground. Soprano outnumbers tenor at three to one, and with that number the section has a good voice of uniformity and lustre; the melisma, though, may sometimes sound too weighty in manoeuvre. The alto gives a good impression on having a substantial presence and support.

With this big work, the choir shows its strength awakened after such a long slumber.

With the Messiah, the choir shows its strength awakened after such a long slumber.

The soloists are less even than the chorus appears to be. Tenor Chen Yong fails to impress with the famous Every Valley in the beginning; with a shaky voice on the mountainous terrain, his performance is rather uninspired, especially from the highs and lows that bestowed to him in the second part. Countertenor Xiao Ma has a gentle voice that fits very much into items like He Was Despised, but he lacks the intensity to triumph over the rambling strings in But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming. Brian Montgomery is an experienced bass who has delivered four arias in distinct characters, with the Thus Saith the Lord of Hosts a markedly shaking melisma befitting the Lord shakes the heaven and earth. Yuki Ip walks calmly out from side stage during the Pifa played on two oboes and a bassoon. Her aria Rejoice Greatly shows her relative calmness compared to the other soloists.

I would wish the ending Amen chorus comparable in strength and force with the Hallelujah. The initial entries of the Amen are reserved for the soloists, who are hoarded to the stage left at the back of the violins. They are barely audible. The instrument entries are also reserved for principles. I recall a recording of Tafelmusik doing the same, but the soloistic treatment that fits well into the small Tafelmusik (as the namely rightly says so) does not equally fit for this massive performing force. More undesirable is that the disparity in treatment between these two big choruses asserts Hallelujah as the climax instead of Amen, a finale written in a style that Handel deems it more archaic, namely, fugue. The Hallelujah is well sung and forceful with a tutti of 150 fine singers; it successfully brings a certain number of people up on their feet (including, strangely, the soloists, who stand without singing). But it is questionable to make this more powerful than anything else if we have the entire book of Messiah on hand. 

This solid performance is directed by Australian conductor Brett Weymark, who is the musical director of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. With this big work, the choir shows its strength awakened after such a long slumber. But with so many competing choirs of equal power and enhanced historical stylishness in these two decades, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus desperately needs to gain a foothold in character and style, but this would only be possible when the chorus is having a long term artistic goal and a steady membership to carry this performance experience on.

Date: March 31, 2013
Venue: Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

This review is part of the critic-in-residence series presented by Art Map with Marc Rochester presiding over the series held between March 28 to April 1. Check out Dr. Marc’s Blog for a review of the same event.

Photo © Cheung Chi-wai / Hong Kong Philharmonic

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