It has often been lamented that Singaporean composers receive short shrift from the national orchestra, but this Singapore Symphony season signaled that change is at hand. The evening opened with the world premiere of Zechariah Goh’s Flow, a work commissioned before the pandemic struck. Born in 1970, Goh is one of the leading composers from Singapore’s Generation X. Although known for his eclecticism, his new work was founded on Chinese music.

Hans Graf conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Aloysius Lim

Flow opened with bold pizzicatos from double basses, simulating strains of the ancient guqin (Chinese zither) as sonic shards coalesced to form something coherent. Like drops of water merging into rivulets and streams, the music gathered texture, volume and pace with further instruments – harp, celesta, strings, solo flute and later woodwinds and brass – joining the fray. The outcome was a surging river of sound, the gradual crescendo revealing a mastery of mystery and tension. Culminating with ostinatos on celesta, xylophone and timpani, the climax now resonated with the vigour of Indian drumming. Its brief eight minutes, superbly marshalled by music director Hans Graf, was totally riveting. 

Receiving its long-awaited Singapore premiere was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor, composed in 1967 as a sixtieth-birthday gift for David Oistrakh. Ukraine-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman wasted no time in flexing a brawny and dusky tone on his 1690 ex-Leopold Auer Stradivarius in a work painted in shades from dark grey to pitch black. Cutting large swathes of sonority through thickets of low strings was his prerogative as the music probed vistas of morbidity and mortality. The ailing Shostakovich, recovering from a heart attack, could still summon the spirit of the dance, which Gluzman duly obliged with a show of animation and nimbleness.

Vadim Gluzman and Hans Graf
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Aloysius Lim

Quite unusually, all three movements of the concerto incorporate solo cadenzas, conceived like confessionals but each dispatched with utmost vehemence and grim authority. The passacaglia-like slow movement heaved with the lugubriousness of an elegy, before being swept aside by the madcap gallop-like machinations of the finale. As in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, where solo French horn jostled with the main soloist for attention, Marc-Antoine Robillard’s horn hijinks kept pace with Gluzman all through to the concerto’s outlandish conclusion. Reciprocating the tumultuous applause, Gluzman’s encore of Ukrainian master Valentyn Silvestrov’s Serenade was no less heart-rending.

Vadim Gluzman
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Aloysius Lim

Coming after the freneticism of Shostakovich, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major "Pastoral" seemed like an anti-climax, but the ensemble under Graf had other ideas. Making this hackneyed music sound fresh without resorting to exaggerated or cheap effects takes work too, and seldom did the opening drones sound more welcoming. Beethoven’s introduction into the countryside was one of freshness, characterised by plush strings and immaculate woodwinds. The Scene by the Brook flowed by in a leisurely pace without sounding sluggish, with the reverie awakened by mimicry of the nightingale (solo flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet). 

Hesitant applause from newcomers in the audience after the first two movements was graciously acknowledged by Graf, before the orchestra launched headlong into the jocular Merry Gathering of the Peasants. The Storm that interrupted the merrymaking was brief but evocative, the chill-factor enhanced by a hyper-alert piccolo. Has there been a more sincere portrayal of thanksgiving and the warm glow of sunshine than this finale? With this show of largesse, the concert drew to a satisfying conclusion.

****1