Sat, 27 Aug 1994

An invaluable example of choir singing as art

By Gus Kairupan

JAKARTA (JP): Music, they say, is singing. Even instrumentalists are praised for "having a beautiful singing tone" or chided if they lack one.

You want to be a good musician? Then learn to sing. Are you majoring in music? Then you'll have to sign up for choir singing. And don't think that singing in a choir is easy.

This planet supports something like five billion people, and there are no two voices, let alone fifty-seven, that are exactly alike. But Nuniek Ratnindyah and Widyarti Sutasurya, or Budi Santoso and Apollonius Supartono can be made to sound alike. There lies the art of choir, or part of it anyway.

They are not fictitious names. The two sopranos (Nuniek and Widyarti), and the two basses (Budi and Apollonius) are four members of the 57 singers who make up the only choir worthy of notice throughout the length and breadth of Indonesia: the choir of the Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung. However, there is one condition attached to this ranking. They are the best when directed by Avip Priatna, the engineer, architect, pianist and choir conductor who recently received his choir directing diploma with excellence from the Hochschule fuer Musik und Darstellende Kunst (academy of music and the performing arts) in Vienna. He is the person who shapes the choir's tone and gives it character. So it can't be far wrong to say that Avip Priatna is Indonesia's top choir director.

I have heard the choir twice before, at a short music event awhile ago at the Goethe Institut and at Erasmus Huis two years ago in a proper recital. The choir gave another concert last Saturday and Sunday, also at Erasmus Huis, and the improvement was dazzling. It's as if they had kept pace with Avip's own progress in Vienna, so the word ausgezeichnet (excellent) on his diploma also applies to the choir members. The choir, I was told do not read notes, stave notes that is. They do read the cipher notes which means that the scores had to be converted to the latter system.

The program was divided in two sections, sacred songs (all in Latin), and secular songs after the intermission. The works, all a capella, were by Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Francis Poulenc (sacred songs section), Felix Mendelssohn, C.V. Stanford, Frederick Delius, Camille Saint-Saens and Maurice Ravel (secular). The works were written in German, English and French, according to the composers' nationality, except the song To Be Sung Of A Summer Night On The Water by Frederick Delius (English composer) that had no text and maybe should be called To Be Hummed Of A.... Humming is wordless singing with lips closed, or almost closed, which makes it difficult to project the sound.


I mention the languages they choir sang in because diction is a very important. It is, after all, the words that convey the message. The choir has improved remarkably since two years ago. Both their German and French sounded quite authentic, and even their English could be followed. Surprised? Don't be. Ask any singer, and they will tell you that English is the most difficult language to sing. It is probably because of the language's inordinate amount of diphthongs. You need little physical effort (working your mouth, lips and tongue) to speak English, compared to German, French, Italian or Spanish.

But diction isn't the only area in which the choir has made progress. Dynamics, the element that breathes life in music, were faultless as feather light pianissimo's alternated with thunderous forte's through perfect crescendo's and decrescendo's.

Of course the beauty of music is very much in the ear of the listener, which makes it rather difficult to make a verdict to which song was best. For what it is worth, my choice goes to the Ravel songs, especially Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis because it is pentatonic. Also Ronde seems to have elements that come very close to what Germans call Sprechgesang which is something like singing in a spoken manner. But these choices are not by any means an indication that the works of other masters were any less satisfactory. There were the sacred songs by Anton Bruckner, a composer known more for instrumental compositions, rendered exquisitely profound, six of Mendelssohn's light-hearted lieder, Stanford's The Blue Bird and the lively Shall we go dance, Brahms, Delius, Saint-Saens... All, in fact, were radiantly presented, in a lone example of choir singing as an art, something no other Indonesian choir has yet achieved.