A performance of Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony is almost always something special. An aura of glamor has surrounded the symphony ever since its première in Munich in 1910, with Mahler himself conducting forces numbering over a thousand and marking the high point of the composer’s tempestuous and difficult career. As part of the celebrations marking Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence (9 August is the official date), the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) presented “A Gift to the Entire Nation,” with two sold-out performances of Mahler’s Eighth in the Esplanade Concert Hall. To call OMM’s achievement awesome would be understatement.

Orchestra of The Music Makers © Koh Swee Jin
Orchestra of The Music Makers
© Koh Swee Jin

The eight vocal soloists came from four countries (Singapore, Korea, the USA and Australia). Three choirs were flown in from Brisbane and Perth to supplement Singapore’s own Vocal Associates Festival Chorus and Children’s Chorus. The orchestra numbered 135, with every instrument Mahler called for, including mandolin, organ, celesta, two sets of timpani, eight horns – the works.

Right from the rock-solid pedal E flat in the basses, the blast from the organ, and the first words from the double choir – some 200 strong – it was evident this was going to be no ordinary Mahler Eighth. What amazed this listener most were the total assurance of the orchestra, which played as if it had done the work many times before, and the thoroughly professional quality of sound that poured forth from the stage. Not even in the thunderously loud moments did the sound degenerate into mere noise. The depth, warmth and richness of sound the OMM put forth were immensely impressive. One wanted it never to end.

Conductor Chan Tze Law’s tempos were pretty much standard, with Part I clocking in at about 22 minutes and Part II at 60. But there was nothing standard about the energy with which Part I unfolded; or the blazing intensity of the opening scene of Part II, wherein Mahler depicts Goethe’s lonely mountain gorges, forests, cliffs and wilderness; or the masterly skill with which Chan built to key climactic moments that nearly washed the listener out of the hall on tidal waves of sound.

If fault need be found, it was in the occasional, erratic intonation in the woodwinds early in Part II. But beside this minor distraction one could revel in the brazen boldness of the horn section that often sounded like its counterparts in Chicago or Vienna, the staggering power of the hall’s organ, the delicate ripples from the celesta and harps, the lovely solos from concertmaster Yoong Han Chan, ethereal pianissimos from the violins, and piercing brilliance of the trumpets.

Janani Sridhar © Derrick Koh
Janani Sridhar
© Derrick Koh

Every one of the hand-picked soloists made a strong impression. Janani Sridhar was the only Singaporean among them, but her contribution was memorable visually as well as musically. As Mater Gloriosa, she was positioned high above the orchestra, alone in the organ loft, from where she beckoned Gretchen up to the higher spheres in the loveliest of voices. Sopranos Hyon Lee and Ariya Sawadivong handled the cruelly high, demanding tessitura of their roles with aplomb, their combined voices joined in a perfect pair. The altos, Deborah Humble and Songmi Yang, had more individualistic roles, and were suitably different in vocal timbre – Humble richly nuanced, Yang purer in quality but equally beauteous. Tenor Dongwon Shin tended to overextend himself. His voice has a distinctive nasal quality, but it is always tightly focused and even throughout the range. His delivery blazed with ardor, and left no doubt he was making it “personal”. Baritone Warwick Fyfe too tended to force but, like Shin, there was no mistaking the passionate intensity of his delivery. Among the male soloists, it was bass Joshua Bloom who left the most indelible impression. The voice is huge, almost cavernous, yet at the same time opulent. His extended, rhapsodical monologue as Pater Profundis had spine-tingling immediacy, and was one of the vocal highlights of the performance.

From their opening lines, it was immediately apparent that the five choirs had been trained to perfection. Attacks and releases were calculated to pinpoint accuracy, and even in the densest, loudest passages, there was clarity and transparency right through the ranks. It is worth remembering that while Mahler called his Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”) a “symphony with chorus”, he called the Eighth a “symphony for chorus.”

The Orchestra of the Music Makers is a self-governing, all-volunteer orchestra of young Singaporean musicians who have recently left high school and who for the most part are pursuing careers in fields other than music. The slightly cumbersome yet poetic name in fact does come from poetry. Some readers may be familiar with Elgar’s gorgeous but little-known oratorio The Music Makers, set to the eponymous poem by the 19th century author Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Its opening lines, “We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams,” accurately reflect the soul and spirit of the ensemble. Obviously, its members are “music makers”. But more importantly, they are also “the dreamers of dreams”, dreams that actually come true: the dream to form an orchestra of their own, the dream to continue playing after high school, the dream to serve one’s community and to contribute to a progressive society. These musicians’ deep love of music, dedication to their cause, and amazingly high level of professionalism all shone through brilliantly in their presentation of Mahler’s mighty “Symphony of a Thousand.” These were performances made in heaven.