Tuesday, 14 July 2020


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Streamed on the Internet @ SISTIC Live
Saturday 11 July 2020

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 July 2020 with the title "Moving orchestral performance an optimistic sign of SSO's future".

In a Covid-19-free alternative universe, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra would have given its first concert under newly introduced Chief Conductor Hans Graf this evening at Esplanade Concert Hall. In reality, the opening concert of the 2020-21 season was instead a stay-at-home event under current circut-breaker and social distancing rules.

Nonetheless, electronic tickets were issued on a pay-as-you-wish basis. There was even a glossily produced digital programme booklet complete with full programme notes and all the trimmings to accompany the viewing experience.

The concert’s main event was a reliving of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor, also known as the “Pathetique”, recorded on 17 January this year. That evening was incidentally the Austrian maestro Graf’s first concert after being named as Shui Lan’s successor at the orchestra’s helm.

Despite being the Russian’s bleakest and most depressing work (premiered in 1893 just a week before his untimely death), Graf’s vision was one of clear-headedness, steering clear of a surfeit of histrionics and hysteria.

By no means undemonstrative, the opening movement’s theme of pathos from the strings came across as sufficiently weepy, and the furious fugato that interrupted the catharsis was a jolt to the senses. The slow movement’s waltz was guileless and bittersweet, with Christian Schioler’s insistent timpani taps providing hints of underlying menace to come.

The unrelenting march of the Scherzo was a crescendo of true vehemence, with an inexorability that was gripping, almost to the point of suffocation. There was a smattering of uneasy applause at its conclusion. In between movements, there were also chorus of coughs from an audience not wearing facemasks, a scenario surely to be a thing of the past.

The finale’s descending chordal strings mirrored the opening movement, but now worn down with a genuine desolation. A glimmer of hope offered by the major key in its central section was short-lived, soon descending into despair, depression and doom. This was a truly moving performance, well-captured on video by multiple camera angles with high defination visuals and realistic sound. This might well be a glimpse into the future, a brave new world of SSO music-making under Graf’s inspired direction.

There was also a delicious encore, a performance of the Largo slow movement from J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. The soloists were the prodigious 13-year-old Singaporean violinist Chloe Chua and Japan-born, Berlin-based violinist Karen Gomyo, who was originally scheduled to perform at this opening concert. They performed most sympathetically but remotely, partnered by 24 SSO musicians and guest harpsichordist Darrell Ang, all playing from their homes.

While one longed for the real-time live concert experience, modern technology has provided a well-meaning and worthwhile but hopefully temporary surrogate. 

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