It takes time to build a symphony orchestra of international calibre. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra gave its very first concert in January 1979, and forty years on they are a very substantial organisation giving a hundred concerts a year. 

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra group for 2019
© Lertkiat Chongjirajitra

Most lovers of orchestral music will have encountered the SSO by now, whether on one of their excellent recordings (especially of Russian music) for the prestigious BIS label, or one of their overseas tours – perhaps the BBC Proms appearance and broadcast in London in 2014. The orchestra was far-seeing from the start, and established not just the orchestra but music scholarships for talented young Singaporeans, who could join the orchestra upon graduation.

Engagement with the young still remains a strong feature of their work: the orchestra is clearly serious in its intention to build the audience of the future. The very first concerts in their 2019-20 season feature Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – two performances at the family-friendly times of 11 AM and 2 PM – and another “Concert for children” follows in March. But the young can be heard on the platform too, at the President’s Young Performers concert in the historic Victoria Hall where Kevin Loh, the Menuhin School-trained Singaporean guitarist, will play Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Loh is currently doing his two years of national service, but presumably it will present no problem obtaining leave when you were recently named the 2019 Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s President’s Young Performer. The SSO’s associate groups include a Youth Choir and Children’s Choir, appearing in both the Christmas concert and the season’s closing concert, and the Children’s Choir and the Ladies of the Youth Choir, singing Fauré – both the exquisite Requiem and the Cantique de Jean Racine, conducted by the British choral conductor Stephen Layton.

Tasmin Little
© Melanie Winning

The SSO concert seasons usually involve leading international performers, and Gautier Capuçon offers Schumann's Cello Concerto, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. That is not so often heard, but rarer still are three other concertos: Stephen Hough plays Saint-Saëns' Piano concerto no. 5 "The Egyptian", and Leonidas Kavakos tackles the Korngold Violin Concerto, while it is possible that many in the audience will encounter Reinecke’s Flute Concerto for the first time, with Karl-Heinz Schütz as the flautist. American violinist Rachel Barton Pine plays Elgar’s Violin Concerto in an event also featuring Elgar’s Enigma Variations. And yet in Britain some still say that Elgar doesn’t travel very effectively beyond his home country.

British music in fact fares rather well with the SSO in 2019-20, with Holst’s The Planets, Britten’s Simple Symphony, as well as Bax’s Tintagel and Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony on the same programme. And the recently departed Oliver Knussen is represented by his The Way to Castle Yonder, an eight-minute curtain-raiser drawn from orchestral interludes of his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!. Of the British performers appearing, the bittersweet occasion will surely be the one entitled “A Farewell to Tasmin Little”, since she has announced her retirement from the concert platform after the season ends. She plays one of the great evergreens for her instrument, Bruch’s First Concerto.

The historic Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Singapore
© Jason Goh

There is plenty of substantial symphonic fare as well of course, with Beethoven leading the way in his 2020 anniversary year, 250 years since his birth in 1770. On the programme are the Choral Fantasy and Symphonies no. 2 and no. 6 ("The Pastoral"), and an all-Beethoven concert with the Second Piano Concerto. More German masterpieces include Brahms’s Second and Third Symphonies, and the Fourth Symphonies of Bruckner and Schumann. But the Russians are there in strength too, with Symphonies numbers 4 and 6 of Tchaikovsky, the Tenth of Shostakovich, and two works of which the SSO have made fine recordings: the Second and Third Symphonies of Rachmaninov.

Contemporary music occasions include Nico Muhly's Viola Concerto and the Violin Concerto by John Corigliano, but the pick is surely the appearance of Krzysztof Penderecki – in what the SSO calls its “Red Balloon Series” – conducting a programme entirely of his own music, including the Horn Concerto and the Second Symphony. Baroque does not usually feature very much in modern symphony concerts, so it is good to see listed some 17th-century French music, excerpts from Lully’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, neatly paired with music that Richard Strauss wrote for the same Molière play – which actually drew on some of Lully’s themes.

Music for the stage does not otherwise play much part in the season, except of course that a lot of it will feature in the concert that is most likely to sell out first: the appearance of Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor himself. The programme details are yet to be announced, but it will surely include some of the arias from Verdi, Puccini and others that occasion so many cries of “bravo” in the world’s great opera houses.

The SSO's remarkably varied series has a very wide range of visiting conductors from all over the world, including Andrew Litton, Robert Spano and Gerard Schwarz from the United States. Principal Guest Conductor Litton leads four concerts, and Associate Conductor Joshua Tan leads three, but otherwise the rest of the thirty concert series has a different conductor for every concert.

Andrew Litton conducting the SSO
© Jack Yam

That must have been very hard work for someone to organise, and the SSO has said: “Lan's exit marks a change in the way SSO handles programming. As music director, he managed the entire programme for the SSO, including suggesting guest conductors and soloists. In future, the new chief conductor will programme his or her series of concerts for the SSO, but overall programming for the orchestra will be managed by the Singapore Symphony Group.” Last season saw ten debutant conductors appear. Such volatility is not usually ideal for the players, but since no Music Director has apparently yet been appointed to succeed the long-serving Lan Shui, who proved such a great orchestra-builder, this might be unavoidable for now. It might also be a season-long series of auditions for the vacant position – the world’s longest conducting competition – as well as a chance for the Singapore audience to sample a selection of the world’s finest.

Click here to see all the dates of the 2019-20 Singapore Symphony season.

This article was sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.