It is no secret that Hans Graf, Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, has been honing talents for the future of classical music. The appointment of 16-year-old violinist Chloe Chua as the orchestra’s Artist-in-Residence for 2023/2004 was a case in point, as was his championing of 24-year-old Chinese violinist Ziyu He, now a regular here. Both were first prizewinners at the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists (2018 and 2016 respectively) and have also recorded Mozart with the orchestra. 

Loading image...
Chloe Chua and Ziyu He with Hans Graf and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Jack Yam | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The evening’s solo showpiece was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major, K364, arguably his greatest concerto for violin. An intimate sense of chamber music was established from the outset, with the orchestra kept on a firm leash such that the opening E flat major chords in the Allegro maestoso sounded politely voiced rather than hammered out. This paved the way for the soloists’ silky smooth unison entry. Chua’s violin and He’s viola are a well-matched pair, and despite their distant placement either side of conductor, they blended well together. 

Sweetness of tone compensated for a deliberate repudiation of forceful projection, most evident in the first movement cadenza and the sublime Andante that followed. After luxuriating in the aria-like cantabile of the slow movement, stops were pulled for the Presto finale but decorum was maintained through to the closing bars. Restraint and maturity would prevail over youthful impetuosity. As an encore, Bach’s Two Part Invention no.8 in F major, in an arrangement for two violins with a repeat performed in double quick time, was totally delectable. 

The concerto proper was preceded by the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which also opened with E flat major chords. Far more portentous here, they were later relieved by a delightful play of counterpoint, underlining the opera’s overt comedy and covert Masonic messages. 

Loading image...
Hans Graf conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Jack Yam | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The concert’s true highlight was Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), composed in 1898 and his most self-indulgent work. The German was just 34 and had a half-century more to live, yet this six-part monolith resounded with a definitive finality as to be hubristic. Opening in a plethora of sound with pedal-points pegged firmly in E flat major (that key again), the Hero’s grandiose visions were well characterised. Leaving little to the imagination, Strauss casts himself as the striding autobiographical Hero. His Adversaries are, by contrast, snivelling and rodent-like, represented by squeaks and squeals from woodwinds and brassy grunts. His Companion was lovingly personified in guest concertmaster David Coucheron’s excellent solo, almost a concerto movement of its own. This is a portrait of Frau Strauss, formidable soprano Pauline de Ahna, who was both tender yet complex, but ultimately inscrutable. 

A trio of offstage trumpets signalled the call to battle, an almighty struggle led by the snare drum’s martial beat. Here, as in the work’s opening, the volume generated at its shattering climax all but raised the roof. In The Hero’s Works of Peace, quotes from earlier tone poems appear fleetingly, notably Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, Straussian heroes and anti-heroes both. 

For this hagiography to wind down, what better than a mellow cor anglais and solo violin to seek a peaceable resolution? Finally returning to the warm embrace of E flat major, this outing worked because of Graf’s close to perfectly paced direction, without letting the fine details get in the way of the flowing narrative. For this, he and his orchestra were roundly applauded.