Singing is never easy. Singing in a small group, amidst the hectic academic schedule is even more demanding. Despite the need to meet those cutthroat deadlines, the SMU Chamber Choir still met regularly to practise for the competition held in Prague, December 2011. Each week, we spent hours in Arts and Culture Centre (ACC), Music Drama Lab (MDL) and claustrophobia-inducing GSRs (group study room) for rehearsals and sectionals. We were not only racing against time, we were also fighting to achieve a better state of physical fitness. For that, we kick-started a series of physical training in the school gym on Saturday mornings; we took on a 30km cycling challenge at the East Coast Park and organized a choir camp to see how we could cope with performance under extreme fatigue.
Chamber Choir's morning exercise!
Still, amidst the crazy SMU lifestyle, we found choir rehearsals surprisingly refreshing (we still do now), because every choir session gave us the opportunity to cast aside those crazy projects, presentations, research papers, examinations and to focus on things that we are all passionate about – choral music. Furthermore, the anticipation of the upcoming Prague Christmas also spurred the choir’s spirit!
Prague Christmas (Prazke Vanoce) is an annual choral festival held in the picturesque Prague, the capital city of the Bohemian land. This year, the festival attracted choirs from Russia, South Africa and other European nations to celebrate Christmas with great music. There were performances, carols, gigs and competitions. We took part in the Youth and Folklore categories.
On the 6th of December, 2011, we touched down in Prague. Awaiting us were sightseeing tours and performances before we competed in the 12th International Festival of Advent and Christmas Music on the 10th of December, 2011.
It was an exceptionally sunny, yet chilly day in Prague. A short walk by the idyllic Vltava
Vltava River, Prague
River sent chills down our spine, literally. Upon arriving in the Prague Conservatory, the competition venue, we started our warm-up routine to prepare for the competition. It was all too nerve-wracking. For some of the members, it was their debut performance with the SMU Chamber Choir. Before long, the usher escorted us to the stage. As we walked down the narrow staircase to the stage, our hearts were thumping. Some were praying, humming, sweating, looking frantically at the previous choir on stage through a tiny window on the stage door, but most camouflaged their nerves with silence.
My heart skipped a beat when the stage door opened. Many pairs of eager eyes – the audience, judges, fellow competitors, friends, alumni, and of course our biggest stakeholder, the Office of Student Life (OSL), gazed at us as we walked on stage.
Our Lovely manager, Regina.
Our Lovely manager, Claudine.
The hall was exceptionally quiet. It was the strangest feeling of all. It was happening too fast. It felt like mere moments ago when we were still rehearsing in MDL and ACC, making mistakes during rehearsals, and fighting jetlag and the cold dry air.
This was it, the moment we had been waiting for.
We watched as Jennifer gesticulated in her usual, steady manner. The basses took a deep breath and hummed the entry note that set the foundation for Gunnar Eriksson’s Kristallen den fina, a series of traditional Swedish tunes. Altos and tenors then came in with Varldens Fralsare, kom har, the first movement of the composition. The second movement, O Kriste, du som ljuset ar, followed suit before it ended with the hybrid of the finale movement, Kristallen den fina. We breathed a sigh of relief (silently though) when Jennifer mouthed the magical word “Nice!” and gave us the assuring smile upon finishing the first song. We felt great. It was a good opening and it boosted the morale of the choir. The choir continued to hold its breath for the rhythmic, intense and mysterious Ummah Salih, a Muslim chant composed by John Pamintuan, a Filipino composer. The chant started off with Shaun’s solo line, accompanied by the male voices’ humming. It ended sonorously.
All in all, the most challenging part of our repertoire was the switch in emotion between songs. The finale of the youth category was the awe-inspiring O Magnum Mysterium, composed by renowned American composer, Morten Lauridsen. The SSAATTBB arrangement was exquisite and delicate. Singing Lauridsen’s music was like… swimming, as constant breathing was necessary. More accurately, the choir had to be like a swim team to relay the music. Because O Magnum Mysterium was a delicate and tranquil piece which set to contrast the preceding Ummah Salih, the choir had to quickly adjust our state of mind. Although we were not technically perfect, we gave it our best shot for the performance.
Our friends from Russia
Half the battle fought. We receded to the backstage and waited for the folklore category. This time round, we were more relaxed as the folksongs we were singing were close to our hearts; the folk category commenced with Delgado’s arrangement of Singapura Medley, a combination of some all-time favourite Malay folksongs such as Rasa Sayang and Dayung Sampan. The repertoire also comprised of a romantic Panggalatoc serenade from the Southern Philippines, Malinac Lay Labi, and ended of with Meplalian, a Balinese folksong by Budi Susanto. Our rendition of Meplalian was refreshing in the eyes of the mostly European audience as we brought in a dash of exotic tropical flavour into the winter wonderland through the music and choreography of the song.
Chamber Choir in Prague Castle
I have to say, Ri Weng Du Zan, a pseudo Mongolian folksong by local composer Phoon Yew Tian was our biggest challenge! Firstly, the choir had to memorize a series of random Chinese syllables that did not make sense to us at all. Next, we had a hard time figuring out the structure of the music and the greatest difficulty was the RHYTHM. Often, before we could figure out the current line, we were already swirled into the whirlwind of fast, cacophonous syllables and lost in the magnificent grassland-like musical landscape. Indeed, we were the most nervous for this song but as always, we trust all our music in the gestures of Jennifer and WE DID IT, mistake free!
We left the stage with dignity, knowing that we had done our best. No regrets. To us, it was a competition against ourselves, to be better than what we could be, and to push limits. Regardless of the outcome, we knew that we had done our best!
Still, we screamed and cheered, GOLD after GOLD, as the emcee announced the results for the competition. Blood (for the sick ones), sweat (for the EXCOs and those who did their stretching seriously), tears (for those who were overcome by emotions) and efforts paid off.
- Two Gold Diplomas!
That was a moment of glory; a milestone for SMU Chamber Choir. We had finally won the battle against ourselves and against time – as Jennifer would put it. More importantly, we’ve learnt the philosophy of performing and a precious life lesson.
Treat every performance as though it was your last one; give your best. Because you never know, this could be the first and the last time you’re singing with this group of people, in this condition. Be thankful to your fellow singers, the condition that you’re singing in. Be thankful to the music. Jennifer