This was the first Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert of the year with Hans Graf, and it had the makings of a landmark. Violinist Chloe Chua, who is the orchestra’s Artist-in-Residence this season, was the obvious main draw. There was, however, still much to recommend the rest of the concert, which opened with Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Hans Graf conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Principal flautist Jin Ta’s opening solo had a sinuous and languid quality that set the tone, as the day enlivened from sultry slumber. Rachel Walker’s excellent oboe continued this awakening amid shimmering textures which listeners today refer to as “impressionist”. Imagine the reaction of its first Parisian audience (1894), to the music’s indeterminate tonality and seeming decadence. No fears on this evening, as conductor Hans Graf led with firm yet flexible guiding hands. Also graced by concertmaster Markus Tomasi’s short violin solo and the gentle of tinkle of crotales, brief but indelible moments of aural magic were the result. 

The full-house had waited on Chloe Chua’s appearance and were not to be disappointed by her convincing account of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major. The prize-winning 16-year-old has to be every music teacher’s dream student, as she carried utter musicality and confident stage deportment to the nth degree. Whether it was her sensitively-honed tone, natural phrasing or unimpeachable intonation, there were lots to admire. 

When more outward show was called for, as in cadenzas near the end of each movement, she delivered with directness, without idiosyncracy or artifice. The cantabile of the slow movement was matched by her view of the Rondo’s courtliness and gentle dance rhythms. Close your eyes, and one does not imagine a child at play but someone twice or three times as mature. Despite the long and loud applause, Chloe dragged out conductor Graf to share the limelight, which meant there was not to be a solo encore – the only disappointment of the evening. 

Chloe Chua and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

After having partnered Chloe so sensitively and assiduously in the concerto, the orchestra had its own show in Georges Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C major. Composed at only 17 in 1855, the symphony was discovered and premiered as late as the 1930s. Sir Thomas Beecham was an early champion, however it has fallen into relative neglect in concert programmes these days. 

Its opening movement, taken at a quick clip by Graf and his charges, had liveliness and ebullience. Brimming with Haydnesque wit, it was simply enjoyable. Carmen would not be heard until 1875, but strong hints were evident in the lovely Adagio, with Pan Yun’s ravishing oboe solo lighting up with a warm Mediterranean glow. The busy little string fugue near its close also provided clues for later action to come. The high spirits of the rustic Scherzo, with its bucolic drones (echoing those heard earlier in the Mozart concerto), made for nice contrasts. The perpetual motion for strings of the Mendelssohnian finale, splendidly delivered, was further icing on the cake. Delicious was to be the last word.