Saturday 30 July 2022

HANS GRAF INAUGURAL CONCERT / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (28 July 2022)


There have just been three days such as this one. The first two took place in January 1979 and January 1997, when the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performed inaugural concerts with Choo Hoey and Shui Lan respectively at the helm. The Austrian conductor Hans Graf is only the SSO’s third Music Director, having assumed the role this month. He had been its Chief Conductor since January 2020. This has been a long-awaited appointment, a delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.


During the interim, he had worked regularly with the orchestra in chamber-sized programmes, first presented as digital concerts, and later live concerts attended by very limited and socially-distanced audiences. It was only recently when the full-strength orchestra was allowed to return, presenting an all-Shostakovich concert in April. With subscriptions concerts finally resuming, it was a return to normality as we know it, with all systems go.


Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan got the concert off to a sizzling start. Spectacular orchestral showpiece that it is, few will not respond to the music’s swashbuckling drive. With slashing strings and brass on overdrive, this was not just a flashy performance but one of finely detailed playing. From guest concertmaster Markus Tomasi’s violin solo to Pan Yun’s oboe and Li Xin’s clarinet, there was much to savour. And who was not waiting for the moment for all four French horns to shine, a heroic call to arms which heralded an exciting drive to a glorious climax? New Music Director Hans Graf marshalled the forces with authority and clear direction, which made for a stunning opener.   


The orchestra was whittled down for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A major K.219, nicknamed the “Turkish” for its Oriental-styled finale. Partnering the orchestra was its present Artist-In-Residence Chloe Chua, who will be recording all five Mozart concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante with the orchestra. Audiences got a foretaste of this admirable project, distinguished by Chloe’s absolutely natural musicianship. Her entries were breathtaking for purity of sound and perfect intonation, allied with a singing tone thus enhancing the music’s simplicity.


The teenaged Mozart wrote his violin concertos for his own use in concerts, and these seemed tailor-made for Chloe’s artistry. Not content with just playing the notes, she infused each and every phrase with vitality, but never an empty gesture or extraneous effects. With her, it was always the music that mattered most, expressed with love and delicacy. Cadenzas and elaborated passages were tasteful, ear-catching for their short duration and never going off tangent. The slow movement sang like an aria, flowing seamlessly like oil (a phrase Mozart referred to legato playing), before the Rondo finale’s graceful dance. The chamber orchestra rocked with drumming effects for a few rhythmic minutes in its Turkish interlude, and Chloe’s response was to further luxuriate in the joy of music-making. The audience response was vociferous, and her genuine smiles in reciprocation made this evening even more special. Within the frame of a diminutive musician, a giant of an artist resides.        


Picture this: an Austrian conductor from Salzburg in his seventies allied with a prodigious 15-year-old girl violinist in Mozart. Does Hans Graf and Chloe Chua not remind music lovers of a similar tandem from the late 1970s: Herbert von Karajan and Anne-Sophie Mutter? Pinch yourself, we have something truly miraculous taking place here in Singapore.


Brahms’ Second Symphony in D major was performed at the SSO’s first anniversary concert in January 1980 at the Singapore Conference Hall. And what a difference 42 years makes in an orchestra’s progress. Hans Graf’s conception of this popular symphony was one built on solid scholarship and musicianship. What one will not get is shock and awe, or hope to be swept away by raw emotion, for he is no passion merchant. Instead one will be entranced by the beauty of sound crafted, the finesse of both solo and ensemble playing, and the work’s overall conception.


Photo: Jack Yam / SSO

The symphony opened leisurely, almost indolent in mood, but that was to set the stage for the lilting second subject, the tune that recalls Brahms’ Wiegenlied (Op.49 No.4, yes that Lullaby). Even that was played straight, and without being milked for whatever reasons. By now, one would have grasped that Graf seeks objectivity in music, shunning sentimentality, nostalgia or other human impulses. Yet the music does not feel depersonalised, as the movement shifted into higher gears in the development.


Photo: Jack Yam / SSO

The middle movements are often forgotten by listeners, but here they took a life of their own. Warmth and intimacy of string playing in the austere slow movement soon made one forget this was one of Brahms’ sternest creations. This terseness did give way to some lightening towards the end, further contrasted by the brief and chatty third movement. Woodwinds came into the limelight, sounding positively lively and energised with principal oboe Rachel Walker taking the lead. If there had been any reservations, those departed with the finale’s exuberance. Even this celebratory movement never went over the top, with Graf keeping a tight lid on any tendency to overheat. This should not be mistaken for reticence, but rather a well-nuanced restraint that would eventually find a way to exultation. Graf and his SSO found that way to close the symphony and concert on a glorious high.


This was a great performance, part of a historic and memorable inaugural concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, one that will stand the test of time. To experience it again would be an unmitigated pleasure, and this may be viewed on YouTube at:


Temasek Foundation SSO Hans Graf Inaugural Concert, featuring Chloe Chua – YouTube



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