Hans Graf didn’t expect to lead another orchestra at this stage of his career. After successful stints helming the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg (1984-1994), Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (1998-2004) and Houston Symphony (2001-2013), the Austrian-born conductor assumed that he had entered a new phase of his professional life, one that might include guest appearances, teaching and a reprieve from the rigors of serving as an international Music Director. Little did he know that a new opportunity he couldn’t refuse would quickly come calling.

Hans Graf
© Singapore Symphony | Bryan van der Beek

In July 2019, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra appointed Graf its Chief Conductor, and he was elevated to the position of Music Director in June 2022. He is only the third person to hold the title in the organization’s 44-year history, following in the footsteps of founder Choo Hoey and longtime leader Lan Shui. The promotion reflects the special relationship between Graf and the musicians in Singapore, a bond formed during the most difficult days of the pandemic, when Graf not only had to build a rapport as a newly installed leader but also navigate shifting cancellations and restrictions imposed by lockdowns and social distancing measures.

“We got to know each other quite intensely and closely,” Graf told me, recalling how size limitations allowed him to take an initial approach that was closer to chamber music. “Of course with small ensembles, you are closer to the single musicians, but we all are friendly and have been waiting for the moment when we can open up and spread our wings. This is not a chamber orchestra. This is a full-fledged symphony orchestra, and it has to play full-fledged symphony concerts. That is what we are made for, and that is certainly our future.”

That future begins very soon, with Graf’s belated inaugural concert leading the symphony’s full forces. On 28th July, Graf takes the podium for a program that includes Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Brahms’s Symphony no. 2 in D major. Between these offerings, the audience will be treated to Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major “Turkish”, featuring SSO’s artist-in-residence, Chloe Chua, as soloist. He’ll follow that up in August with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor, with Ukrainian-Israeli soloist Vadim Gluzman, and the world premiere of Flow, a new work by Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh.

“Some of it is leftovers from before Covid, so we are working on getting programs rescued that were condemned by the inability of bringing guests artists or the whole orchestra,” he said. “The program in August, with the Shostakovich, is a postponed Covid program. The first program is new, and for this big opening, we thought the Strauss was a real fabulous sign of vitality and a gesture of return.”

Hans Graf during rehearsals with the Singapore Symphony
© Singapore Symphony

Graf’s approach to programming balances repertory staples with deserving pieces off the beaten path. He wanted his official introduction to the SSO’s public to reflect that thinking. The equilibrium is key.

“It is our duty to bring music to audiences that is wonderful but is not everyday music,” he said. “But in Singapore, there is a thing I have noticed. We have an average audience age of 35 – which is very young compared to America. We are also a younger orchestra, and we have some youth that is interested in uncommon or unknown music. We have to cultivate this interest. We don’t have to punish them with music that is too hard. We also had no chorus for two years due to Covid, but they are coming back. I just went to hear them rehearse – they are doing wonderfully – and they are now very seriously rehearsing for the seldom-played Nänie by Brahms, which is a wonderful piece.”

Throughout the season, Chua will appear intermittently, working her way through Mozart’s violin concerti, culminating with the creation of an album that will feature the SSO backing her in all five pieces. Graf views this project as a cementation of the special relationship between the 15-year-old violinist, a Singapore native, and her hometown band.

“We have our wonderful artist-in-residence, which is a relationship that started for me a year ago, and for the orchestra a couple of years ago,” Graf continued. “Chloe is a diamond, and we are very happy to have her here. We decided to go into a project with her that is very important, and is a very great honor for all who are involved, because it means something to do all Mozart's violin concerti. Great violinists have done this, and I think that giving this to her is a sign of the deepest confidence we have in her genius and her lovely character, which is reflected in her music-making. She is representing this with the biggest Mozart violin concerto, the A major, to open the season – this is also a gesture, but it is very justified and very much in place with this program.”

Hans Graf gifting an edition of Mozart's Violin Concerti to Chloe Chua
© Singapore Symphony

The move toward reopening for in-person concerts allows Graf to look back on his two years as Chief Conductor, during which time the SSO maintained its presence through digital offerings. I suggest that for organizations that might not be as well known in the West, streaming might have served as a blessing in disguise, allowing a global audience to discover the high quality and versatility they have to offer. Graf – whose extensive recording career netted Houston Symphony its first-ever Grammy Award in 2018 – is sanguine about the experience of recorded concerts, but is equally eager to dive into the work of re-establishing the SSO’s intimate personal relationship with its local audience.

“Covid showed, in a good and a bad way, not only the quality of an orchestra but of how an orchestra is run,” Graf reflected. “Many orchestras got in dire straits. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra – and we are very grateful for this – is seriously supported by the government, but it is also seriously guided by an administration that has the circumspection to see what we can do in difficult environments. Of course we went to the one tool that everyone is using, which is streaming. Streaming is very good and brings you close to many people. Chloe’s recording of Mozart’s Second Violin Concerto, which we recorded more than a year ago, has over half a million views, which is wonderful for popularity. But the real lifeblood comes from real concerts. We could bridge the time of hunger and restrictions very well, but we are absolutely happy now to see the first reactions of concert audiences, packed halls to real concerts. It’s fantastic to see the hunger of audiences to come to real concerts, which we anticipate for our season opening as well. It’s like drinking a real espresso in a café or making a Nespresso at home. That is good, but the real thing is something different.”

Hans Graf conducting the Singapore Symphony
© Singapore Symphony

In addition to its high regard for music and culture, Singapore is known as a haven for fine and rare spirits. I couldn’t resist asking Graf, a noted wine enthusiast, if he’d encountered any extraordinary bottles in his time on the island.

“The wine is dangerously good here,” Graf said. “The prices in restaurants are, of course, prohibitive, but there are lots of very serious collectors who are of great taste and discrimination – and who are very generous. I can tell you that I have a very dear friend who is very close to the orchestra, and we invited him to dinner a few days ago. He contributed from his cellar a Haut-Brion 1959, a magic year and one of the prominent bottles of the last century. So don’t be afraid that my love of wine will dry up here!”

In many ways, leading a great orchestra is like crafting a singular cuvée. It requires both personal ardor and scientific knowledge, and it depends on balance, structure and the experience to know when you’re doing everything just right. With Graf at the helm, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is poised to write a new chapter of its history, defined by the same rare and remarkable qualities you’d expect from the best bottle of Bordeaux: elegance, sophistication and passion.

Click here to see all upcoming concerts of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

This article was sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.