17th OCtober 1999

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There was praise, but the majesty was drowned

Review of choral festival for Michael Mastid at St. Michaels and All Angels, Polwatte on October 3.

By Louis Roberts

The final verse of Psalm 150 says it perfectly: "let everything that has breath praise the Lord". It appears that is precisely what Dr. Lalith Perera, the conductor of the combined choir, attempted to achieve. I commend him on a carefully constructed and finely-blended programme of choral works and congregational hymns.

Ruwan Wijetunga (organ) and Naveen Fernando (trumpet) began proceedings. Not having heard him before, I must confess to having been pleasantly surprised by Wijetunga's technique, sensitivity and musicality. He shows much promise although one did detect a noticeable slackness in maintaining tempo and the liberal and inappropriate use of ritardando.

Fernando, on the other hand, by all accounts Sri Lanka's leading trumpeter, has had better days. Of the six pieces listed, he played the first four - were all perennial favourites.

However, from "Jesu Joy" to "Sheep may safely graze," all these required a mellifluous tone, seamless phrasing and tightly-controlled breathing. Fernando delighted with his inimitable tone, but failed with colourless playing and ragged phrasing.

Conducting a combined choir is an exercise usually fraught with risk. Singing styles, enunciation, delivery and matters of tonal balance, pitch and cohesion invariably differ from one choir to the next. Dr. Lalith's combination of six choirs was no exception. While it is true the great choral masterpieces of Handel and Haydn, for example, require huge resources to do them justice, hastily bringing together disparate choral elements cannot reasonably be expected to do the job.

It was evident the choir was under-rehearsed. The vast majority of choristers showed all the classic signs of being tyrannized by the printed music in front of them. One could have counted those few choristers emboldened enough, as they ought to have been, to look up. This probably accounted for the paucity of contribution from tenors and basses, even though there seemed to be an impressive lineup.

The majestic "The Heavens are telling. . ." that closes the first part of Haydn's "The Creation" hardly suggested the triumph of order that had been established through God's Kingdom. The choice of tempi left much to be desired, harmonic textures were blurred and one was acutely aware of the accompaniment being either far ahead or behind the choir at most times. The choir was simply unable to cope with the varied and exacting demands of one of Handel's most intricately-woven choruses - the great 'Amen" chorus that concludes the "Messiah". It is a contrapuntal web of continuously overlapping entries. The choir was lost in a welter of confusion.

We now come to the beautiful congregational hymns. Even here, the choir displayed the distressing tendency to breathe at the end of each line of printed words, rather than completing each phrase. For instance, and examples abound, in the phrase - " grant us in mercy grace to win by patience Joys everlasting..." (processional), it is incorrect to have breathed between 'patience, and 'joys everlasting' and thus to have interrupted the whole cadence.

Finally, to Dr. Lalith, I have just one observation. It is extraordinarily difficult for any chorister to concentrate on tempi, pitch, balance and accompaniment when the principal conduit that fuses these elements - i.e. the conductor - is out of sight or has no eye-contact with those he is supposed to direct. By his angular positioning, and in the Purcell ("Rejoice always..."), being actually behind the octet, it was no wonder the ensemble and the choir often sounded directionless.

As much as Dr. Lalith is an invaluable asset as a soloist, one cannot effectively perform the roles of soloist and conductor at the same time. Each role demands its own unremitting attention. I look forward to seeing Dr. Lalith, in future, in his rightful place directly in front of a choir.

Lest I be accused of being churlish and uncharitable, let me put matters in a broader perspective. I am mindful of St. Paul's exhortation that the message is more important than the medium. The fact is on Sunday, Christ was preached. For that I rejoice and thank Dr. Lalith and the choir.

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