(Photos courtesy of Magnus Skrede)

Choral Crossover From Berlin

APRIL 28, 2015

Nicholas Fink has led the Radio Choir Berlin in a series of boundary-breaking musical collaborations around the world.  (Photo courtesy of Heyde)

The voices of the singers from the Rundfunkchor Berlin, or Radio Choir Berlin, fill the air, the emotion in their song as strikingly powerful as their vocal skills and range.

Whether it be the Baroque grandeur of Bach’s “Passion of Saint Matthew” or “Passion of Saint John,” the more emotionally charged sound of 19th-century Romantic composers like Schubert’s “Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern,” or Carl Orff’s iconic 1935 cantata “Carmina Burana,” the choir, which is the oldest and most renowned of its kind in Germany, shows that its grasp of the classic medium knows no bounds.

“The basis of much of [the Berlin Radio Choir’s] repertoire is with 19th-century German Romanticists and their 20th-century counterparts because they entail a larger chorus,” says choir deputy director Nicholas Fink.

“Baroque choirs are usually smaller as they’re more oriented to chamber music, though certain numbers, like Bach’s ‘Passions,’ are exceptions to this rule. We have about 64 full-time singers, though we can have less than that or more, depending on the repertoire. Regardless of the size of the chorus, one has to make sure the singers are in vocally good health and musically connect.”

He showed this innovative streak in 2014, when he conducted the Berlin Radio Chorus and the percussionists of the U-Theater Taipei in the world premiere of musician Christian Jost’s “Lover.”

“My work [in ‘Lover’] required the chorus to sing in Mandarin,” he recalls of the composition, whose musical juxtapositions of East and West included combining the sounds of the piano and xylophone, as well as kettle drums and gongs.

“It was challenging because the language and music is different from our German roots.”

Fink’s other groundbreaking works include the Norwegian premiere of Frank Martin’s “Le Vin Herbe” in a “visual concert” performance using images by Norwegian photographer Magnus Skrede.

Fink, a graduate of the Luzern Conservatory of Music, is now set to bring his innovative take on classical music to Indonesia this October through a series of workshops and creative collaborations in Jakarta, Bandung and Medan, with choir groups from the University of Indonesia and Parahyangan University.

Their efforts will culminate in an evening program featuring pieces by 19th-century German Romantic composers such as Schubert, Brahms and Schumann, as well as Indonesian songs.

(Photos courtesy of Magnus Skrede)

The musical crossover project is part of German Season, a series of cultural programs held by the Goethe Institut, the German Embassy in Jakarta, and the German-Indonesian Chamber of Commerce from September to November.

A recipient of a conducting fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center in Boston in 2006, Fink is no stranger to international masterclasses or collaborations.

“I only saw the Indonesian choirs on Youtube prior to coming here, so I don’t really know that much about them. But I noted that they are highly skilled, so we will work on a challenging repertoire with them,” he says.

“I look forward to juxtaposing the predominantly young Indonesian choir singers with their older German counterparts. As a chorus with members ranging in age from 25 to 60, we can combine consistency and cohesiveness and provide a balance between power and experience.”

His counterpart, Aning Katamsi, the trainer of the University of Indonesia’s Paragita choir, welcomes the opportunity to work with Fink.

“The upcoming project is our first collaboration with foreign musicians since we collaborated with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996,” she says.

“As a student choir, Paragita’s schedule balances its members’ academic routines with musical practice. We might not put as much time into singing as our professional counterparts, but we still have the same high musical standards.”

Choir singer Arvita Noor Amalia agrees, saying, “Our balance of academic work and music gets to the point that if one voice section is drilled, those who aren’t will continue with their studies.”

Arvita, a psychology major, says she hopes to merge her academic studies closely with her musical skills.

“I look forward to working with full-time professionals,” she says.

The differences in background don’t faze Fink. “As professionals, we find it worthwhile to work with student groups or amateur choirs because it enables us to get back to basics. We tend to live in a bubble where we are subject to music and constant criticism, so to work with others is a welcome break” he says.

“That’s why we hold sing-along projects, as they break down the barriers between us and the audience. It’s important to engage the audience, since attendance of music halls has been declining in recent years as online music enables people to enjoy it wherever they go.”

Fink’s work with the Berlin Radio Choir often sees him work together with renowned directors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Marek Janowski and Thomas Hengelbrock. He is also the choral director of the newly founded Schleswig-Holstein Festival Choir.