Concerts of light classical music by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were known in the past as Familiar Favourites. That was the name of a beloved series started in the 1980s, filled with popular classics and lollipops, catering to first-time and younger concert-goers who might have been intimidated by the likes of Mahler, Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Although the series no longer exists, this concert led by young Swiss conductor Lorenzo Viotti, principal conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, had a strong and nostalgic whiff of Familiar Favourites about it.

Lorenzo Viotti conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Opening with Dvorak’s evergreen Serenade in E major, this was a showcase for the orchestra’s fabled string section. Lushness and transparency were evident from the outset, allowing for voices of the cellos, not always apparent in recordings, to be heard. The popular Waltz had a beguiling lilt, well contrasted with the ensuing Scherzo’s swiftness and elegiac quality of the Larghetto. Although the finale’s dramatics dominated, quotes from earlier movements lent a sense of unity (and also a little nostalgia) to the proceedings. A fine performance all round. 

Austrian clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer was guest soloist in Brahms’ autumnal Clarinet Sonata no. 1 in F minor, in an arrangement with string accompaniment by a certain P Cueto. Neither the programme notes nor an internet search revealed the countenance of this arranger, nor the existence of a publisher, previous performances or existing recordings. So was this Singapore premiere also a world premiere? Had it even been completed? One wondered as just the second and third movements were heard, played with a beauty of tone and suaveness expected from the principal clarinettist of the Berlin Philhamonic. The slow movement was long-breathed and atmospheric, followed by a movement of typical Viennese Gemutlichkeit, and has the direction Allegretto grazioso been more aptly applied?

Andreas Ottensamer and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

As if stunned into silence, the audience withheld its applause as Brahms flowed into Mendelssohn, with a selection of three Songs Without Words arranged by Ottensamer himself. Originally conceived for piano solo, these short pieces translate well for clarinet. Beginning with Shepherd’s Complaint, it was more of a lament particularly well expressed by the clarinet at its most plaintive. The other two were much briefer, played like short and quick minute-long encores. So the originally-planned Brahms clarinet sonata in four movements was replaced by a Brahms-Mendelssohn dance suite in five movements. Not quite the same thing, and a come-down of sorts given expectations. 

Closing the concert was another familiar favourite in Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. Here was the Russian’s idea of Haydn and Mozart’s symphonic form brought up to date, specifically to the times of 1916-17. Joined by woodwinds, brass and timpani, this is a pastiche of a classical symphony in the best sense of the word. Receiving a searing performance under Viotti, one has seldom heard the SSO play it this fast. The sonata-form first movement possessed a nervous edge, and bordered on the impatient. The slow movement was all elegance, with strings gliding ever so gracefully over a gentle pulsing bass. The Gavotte came across as deliberately ungainly, with over-emphasised accents, but caution was thrown to the winds with the finale’s perpetual motion. It was relentlessly driven, breathlessly exciting, and much appreciated by the audience.