What goes through the mind of an orchestral musician when they only have a few notes to play? Are they compiling a mental shopping list for the homeward supermarket trip? Or are they furiously counting tacet bars until their moment of glory? Two players found themselves in this position in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s latest (online) subscription concert: Lim Meng Keh (crotales) in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (just 10 chimes); and Jon Paul Dante (trumpet) in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (13 bars). Bit parts, certainly, but the icing without which the compositional cake wouldn’t be complete.

Lim Meng Keh © Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lim Meng Keh
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The trumpet part in the Siegfried Idyll was originally played by the conductor Hans Richter, who had learned the instrument especially for the occasion, even rowing out onto Lake Geneva to practise so that Cosima Wagner – the work’s recipient – wouldn’t hear it before the birthday surprise on the staircase of the Wagners’ Tribschen villa on Christmas Day 1870. The Idyll is seemingly every orchestra’s favourite post-lockdown work, its chamber forces (13 players) perfect for socially-distanced formations. Under Kahchun Wong’s precise baton, the SSO musicians gave a sensitive performance, marked by excellent solos, from leader Chan Yoong-Han’s dulcet violin (a sweetly executed trill) to Jamie Hersch’s opulent horn tone. The work’s urgent climax – cue that trumpet – was suitably ripe, before the pillow-soft repose of the conclusion.

Jon Paul Dante © Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Jon Paul Dante
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Wong had similarly allowed his ensemble space to wallow in the Debussy. Spacious tempi made this Faune sleepy rather than erotically-charged, with Jin Ta’s languorous flute lines limpidly phrased. One misses the harp in Benno Sachs’ reduction for 11 players, although here Sachs’ wheezy harmonium was substituted by a celesta, which at least restored some of the shimmer to Debussy’s sun-kissed tone poem, aided by the crotales’ resonant heat haze in its closing pages and the video director’s cross-fades.

Kahchun Wong © Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Kahchun Wong
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

After this drowsy duo, we were plunged into a very different world, the agitated atmosphere of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet in its Chamber Symphony arrangement for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai. It’s one of Shostakovich’s most personal works, his D-S-C-H musical monogram scrawled all over its five movements. The ferocity of the quartet’s sardonic Allegro molto second movement is somewhat blunted by the orchestral setting, although the 17 Singapore strings attacked it with sinewy verve. But Barshai does pare down the score to solo strings at times and Yu Jing’s cello solos were both polished and poignant. Wong, whose fluid baton technique all stems from the wrist, maintained the work’s nervous tension, the fourth movement, with its persistent knocking at the door, taken at a steady, deliberate pace. The mournful finale was especially telling, fading into silence in the empty Esplanade Concert Hall. 

This performance was reviewed from the Sistic video stream