There have only been three days like this one in the 41-year history of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO): call it a “red letter day”, one when the orchestra unveils its new Music Director to a curious public in a subscription concert. Way back in January 1979, Choo Hoey led the newly-formed orchestra as the nation’s first-ever professional ensemble. In January 1997, the relatively young Lan Shui began his tenure as the orchestra’s second Music Director amid much fanfare. Today, the appointment of veteran Austrian conductor Hans Graf as SSO’s new Chief Conductor seemed muted by comparison, such that even the gala concert, titled “Kavakos plays Korngold”, did not hint to the historical occasion. However the wizened 71-year-old is more of the type who lets his music do the talking.

Hans Graf and the SSO
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The concert opened with Dvořák’s Scherzo Capriccioso, not often heard around here and a deceptively tricky work for orchestral players as well. French horns were called upon immediately for the opening gambit, and they were not caught cold. Similarly, the important cor anglais melody in a slower central section was also lovingly voiced by Elaine Yeo. A cross between the Bohemian composer’s Slavonic Dances and Scherzos from the symphonies, this playful single-movement number had folk music written all over it. The orchestra had a good feel of its lively dance idioms, which also included a waltz which did not descend into schmaltz.

Turning schmaltz into high art was, however, the purview of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose popular Violin Concerto came next, performed to near perfection by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. It was Korngold, an Austrian-Jewish expatriate to America, who revolutionised Hollywood film music with his dramatic, swashbuckling and sumptuously melodic scores. This concerto was just that, three movements cobbled together with memorable themes from four now-forgotten movies.

Kavakos is one of those soloists who makes the seemingly impossible sound as natural as breathing. The first movement’s bittersweet moments were worn heart-on-sleeve, the only concession to modernity being a short cadenza that was almost casually cast aside. No technical difficulties fazed him, not even the demand for pin-point intonation in the high registers of the slow movement. The finale, with whimsical themes from The Prince and the Pauper, became a game of catch-me-if-you-can with the orchestra gamely keeping up with every twist and turn. The applause was vociferous, which became ever louder after Kavakos’ obligatory solo encore, Les Furies, the fiery finale from Eugene Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no. 2, complete with its Paganinian quotes.

Leonidas Kavakos, Hans Graf and the SSO
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Whether one accepts the conspiracy theories surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death just a week after the premiere of his final symphony or not, there is little doubt that the “Pathétique” was his bleakest and most depressing work. It is easy to over-paint the work with a surfeit of hysteria and histrionics, but Graf and the SSO wisely steered clear of that. What resulted was clear-headed but by no means undemonstrative.

The lugubrious opening was well articulated by Wang Xiaoke’s bassoon solo and the first movement’s theme of pathos from the strings (supposedly influenced by Don José’s “Flower Song” from Bizet’s Carmen) came across as sufficiently weepy. The tumultuous fugato unleashed in the development section was a bolt from the blue, literally a jolt to the senses. The second movement’s waltz was guileless, but the innocence went only as far as the central section, when undertones of menace crept in with Christian Schiøler’s insistent timpani taps. The relentless march of the Scherzo was delivered with a crescendo of true vehemence, a harrowing drive to the edge of the abyss.

There was a short burst of applause from a small section of the audience and with nary a break, the finale’s Adagio lamentoso became the final catharsis. Descending chordal strings mirrored the symphony’s first movement theme but here the desolation became more definitive. The central section in the major key offered a glimmer of hope but it is a false dawn: the descent of its final pages into despair, depression and doom could not be any more palpable.

There was a long-enough break of silence before the applause erupted, meaning that Graf and his charges had conveyed Tchaikovsky’s last will and testament with the desired impact. The Hans Graf era with the SSO has just begun and it already looks to be an interesting and solidly musical one.