“We are Flying Dutchmen,” jests Hans Graf, talking about a conductor’s life. “Only we don’t use boats. We use planes and planes are more difficult to catch these days.” The pandemic has meant the Austrian has had an “interrupted” start to his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, working only a couple of stints with them, three months apart. At least, unlike Wagner’s Dutchman, his visits are not restricted to once every seven years. Plans were scrapped – “I missed my glamorous inauguration!” – and schedules were amended so that the orchestra could present a digital opening to the season instead. 

Hans Graf
© Singapore Symphony | Bryan van der Beek

Founded in 1979, the SSO has previously had only two chief conductors. Under Lan Shui (1997-2019), the orchestra carved out quite a reputation internationally, both on tour and on CD. “I've inherited two fabulous halls, which are a pleasure to play in, and a very good orchestra which, through years of challenging programming and recording, is used to playing at an international level.” He admits that recruiting new players is difficult – “it would crash the budget to fly in all the people we'd want to see” – and that touring with the orchestra right now is just a dream, but promoters have been keen to shift dates.  

Schedules have been constantly amended as the situation has changed. “It was not as bad an opening as you would imagine. We did fantastic work with, I hope, well chosen pieces like Stravinsky's Apollon musagète, Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, and my very own arrangement of the Debussy String Quartet, which is a pleasure for string players because all of them have dreamt about playing the quartet and never did. We also did the very full-bodied Dvořák Serenade for Winds, so you can do interesting things. But don't get me wrong, this is not the full meal. The modern orchestra has to eat more!” The danger, Graf tells me, (half) joking again, is that “people play Mahler 4 in a chamber reduction for just 16 musicians and they like it too much and want to keep it that way!”  

Hans Graf
© Singapore Symphony | Bryan van der Beek

Performing to an empty hall brings its own challenges, both technically, but emotionally too. “We need an audience because music is a form of direct, humane communication. It's like Hamlet speaking his soliloquy to himself, talking to nobody. It’s not how we want to perform. We need that live response and people need the energy coming from the stage. Forty years ago, when CDs first appeared, people said ‘Oh, you could never hear this so well in the concert hall. Let’s abolish all concerts.’ When these people who are breast-fed on CDs come to a concert and the orchestra plays, you sit there and you physically feel that stream of energy coming at you... then you know why concerts still exist!”

On the technical side, what are the difficulties posed by social distancing requirements? “Previously, we’d have ten first violins, which is just nice for a Beethoven symphony; they sit together, they hear each other, feel each other, then they can play together. But now there are just five first violins for the Eroica and they are sitting one and a half metres apart. They can't see each other. The microphone is merciless – it captures everything. For instance, in Metamorphosen by Strauss, all of a sudden you have Viola 4, Cello 5 and Violin 8 playing phrases together...  playing with somebody who sits ten metres away from you! There’s no herd immunity!” 

Are players having to rely more on sight now rather than on what they hear? “It’s a combination of both,” Graf explains, “and we call that combination ‘experience’ and you learn from it. You learn how much you have to anticipate and how much you have to tame your own sound. Encouragement, understanding and mutual respect leads to good results.”

One of the programmes recorded for digital streaming features 13-year old Chloe Chua, who performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in D major. Graf is full of praise for her. “We came together a couple of days before rehearsals. We sat together with her pianist for an hour and spoke, played, sang through the whole concerto. I strongly refuse to call her a Wunderkind. She's a normal, nice, modest girl, a little bit shy, but when she speaks with her violin, she's a grown-up. She's an adult musical soul. And she's the quickest pro I have worked with in a while. So she plays a phrase which probably needs to speak with a little more of a lift. In the blink of an eye, she has it. She plays it perfectly and then applies it to all parallel spots. You don't have to remind her. She does not abnegate her tonality. She has very beautiful phrasing. And she's rock solid. During the recording, she had one silent wish. She asked to do the cadenza once more, because that was one place of intonation she wanted to correct. ‘Chloe,’ I said. ‘It's your recording, you can do the cadenza ten times!’” 

I wonder how recording for streaming works in practice. Is there much ‘patching’ or do they try and run straight through? “We are invited to do a full performance, even without breaks between movements, then we have a fantastic sound producer to help with patching. But we have to be careful. We did Mozart’s Gran Partita, which is 50 minutes of uninterrupted recording after which the players will get really tired. 

“I have a little anecdote from my youth when I was invited to conduct the Haydn Oboe Concerto with the principal oboe of the Vienna Philharmonic. Before the rehearsal he said, ‘Be careful. I can't play the concerto more than once.’ But how, you play the oboe all day? ‘Yes, in the orchestra!’ But to play the whole Haydn Oboe Concerto is nothing compared to what every one of the 13 wind players has to do in the Gran Partita. In the ‘Salieri’ movement [the Adagio which Salieri describes so movingly in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus] the second bassoon plays from the first to last note, four minutes with barely an eighth-note break! But if we had to do some patching, he’d say ‘Give me a break of a minute or two then we can play again.’ So they were heroes. Heroes in the time of Corona!”

Hans Graf and the Singapore Symphony in rehearsal
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Once "normality" resumes, does he have any particular plans for the orchestra? Graf smiles. “Yes, I do. I have secret wishes… which I keep secret, because Covid could turn it all to dust. So I take a new deep breath and we start to sort out what we can reasonably do. What I hope is that we're getting back to paying audiences, getting back to our sound and healthy rehearsal atmospheres, where we can really start to work. And then, once we’re back in the hall, then I might open my mouth.”

There is a sense of quiet optimism though. “I'm not a prophet, but it's looking good. For the first time, there is the hope in the air that we're getting to Phase Three of Singapore's re-opening, but there's also the unknown factor of the vaccine, which could come quicker or later than you think. So we will be a little bit at the mercy of developments as we have been since I’ve been here, but we know that the governing people are full of goodwill.

“I hope to plan two solid programmes without us forgetting the valuable experience of playing together as a small orchestra. I would like to do the Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments. And I would like to do the Three Pieces from Berg’s Lyric Suite, the chamber orchestra version. This is the greatest music and you shouldn't play it just because it's only for strings. The reason that we play only for strings right now is because we don't have the space, but later we will play it for nobler reasons.”

Article sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra