Lan Shui © Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra
“Aimez-vous Brahms?” If so, then the Singapore Symphony is the orchestra for you. Lan Shui, celebrating 20 years as the orchestra’s music director, is at the helm for a Brahms symphony cycle spread across the first half of its season, marking the 120th anniversary of the composer’s death. The SSO season includes core classical favourites, starry soloists and forays into lesser-played repertoire for the musically curious.

Johannes Brahms was so overawed by Beethoven’s legacy as a symphonist that he didn’t complete his First Symphony until he was 43. The self-critical composer laboured over the work for years only for the conductor Hans von Bülow to dub the work “Beethoven’s Tenth” thanks to its character and the similarity between the main theme of Brahms’ finale and the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ in Beethoven’s Ninth. If Beethoven was even an indirect inspiration behind the First Symphony, the Second in sunny D major has more in character with Schubert, its finale full of bonhomie. The Third is the shortest symphony of the four, and unusual in ending on a note of quiet introspection. Its third movement has an autumnal quality, full of yearning. The influential music critic Eduard Hanslick claimed that the Third was “artistically the most nearly perfect” of the four, although many would argue for the Fourth. Brahms’ final symphony was premiered in Meiningen in 1885, with the composer himself conducting. It opens in serene fashion with a great musical sigh before gradually unfolding and gaining momentum – heart on sleeve stuff for a composer sometimes accused of being emotionally pent up. For his finale, Brahms uses a passacaglia form – a set of variations over a recurring bass theme – to build a powerful, defiant finale.

It is not just the symphonies that have been programmed, but some of Brahms’ choral music too – the Song of the Fates and the Song of Destiny. There is also a performance later in the season of Brahms’ evergreen Violin Concerto in D major, with its joyous, gypsy-style finale, which will be performed by Alina Ibragimova. To help get the most from your Brahms fix, SSO Associate conductor Jason Lai introduces a Discovering Music exploration of the Fourth Symphony, entitled Go Fourth with Brahms!

Lan Shui conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra © Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui conducting the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Lan Shui has announced that he will be stepping down as music director in 2019. During his tenure, the reputation of the SSO has grown internationally, partly through its touring work and partly through a series of fine recordings, particularly of Russian repertoire. Lan Shui includes rarities by Liadov and Scriabin in July and is at the helm for a Russian gala at the end of the season which includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1 in G minor, subtitled ‘Winter Daydreams’ and Leonidas Kavakos performing Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.

Andrew Litton was recently appointed as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor and is scheduled for two concerts next season. A noted Tchaikovskian, Litton programmes the fateful Fourth Symphony alongside Shostakovich and Bartók (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing the Third Piano Concerto). He also conducts Aaron Copland’s Symphony no. 3 – a work you might not think you know, although its finale quotes one of the composer’s best known works, the Fanfare for the Common Man. Litton pairs the Copland with Beethoven’s amiable Triple Concerto in which he himself takes on the piano part, joining concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and principal cello Ng Pei-Sian.

As well as Copland’s Third, the Singapore Symphony programmes a number of works which aren’t played too often. It’s a mystery, for example, why Alexander Glazunov’s music isn’t better known. The SSO recorded his symphonic poem The Sea some years ago and next season it performs the Fifth Symphony which has a foot-tapping finale audiences would love if they only got the chance to hear it.

William Walton gets programmed very little outside the United Kingdom, so it’s great to see his Viola Concerto will be performed in January, with the SSO’s Zhang Manchin as soloist. Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony is another rare visitor to the concert hall. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it had its première in 1993, since when it was been championed by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Written in two short movements, it is the curtain-raiser to Hannu Lintu’s programme of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

Star names are certainly attracted to Singapore: Stephen Hough, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anna Tsybuleva, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Lang Lang are on the bill next season… and that’s just the pianists. Janine Jansen, Gil Shaham, Alina Ibragimova and Steven Isserlis ensure a truly international line-up of which any orchestra would be proud.

Opera also features towards the end of the season, with two semi-staged performances of Puccini’s La bohème, along with Poulenc’s brief but powerful La voix humaine. Leonard Bernstein’s centenary is marked with a screening of the film version of his classic musical West Side Story, for which the SSO under Joshua Tan provides live orchestral accompaniment, providing a real “Rumble” in Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall.

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Article sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra