Classical concerts are not usually associated with the coming of the Lunar New Year in Singapore, however the Singapore Symphony’s Music Director Hans Graf bucked the trend with an all Austro-German programme, one of excellent synergy and significant local geography. 

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

Only 220 miles separate Richard Strauss’ Munich from Gustav Mahler’s Vienna, and just four years between their respective birthdates. Their quite distinctive musical styles, however, made for a satisfyingly euphonious sitting. Strauss’ early tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) from 1889 was an excellent starter, its vivid evocation of a dying man’s last ebbing breaths was well brought out by the orchestra. Amid a slow heaving pulse with strings bathed in a warm glow, solos from Evgueni Brokmiller’s flute and Pan Yun’s oboe stood out. Guest concertmaster Markus Tomasi’s violin also sang from the heart, but with a blow on the timpani, a titanic struggle of life and death ensued. 

Graf’s traversal of the music’s narrative was thrilling to say the least, culminating with that glorious five-note motif of redemptive force which seemed to conquer everything. One wonders whether its similarity to John Williams’ Superman theme was the Hollywood composer’s Freudian tribute to a Mensch overcoming the fear of death or a Nietzschean act of über-appropriation. At any rate, the brass apotheosis near the end provided true comfort, and has there been a more perfect C major chord to close? 

The first half also featured South Korean soprano Sumi Hwang, first prize-winner of the 2014 Queen Elisabeth International Competition for voice, singing four songs by Gustav Mahler. From Des Knaben Wunderhorn, settings to folklorish texts by von Arnim and Brentano, were three short songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht?Verlor'ne Müh and Rheinlegendchen. Hwang’s German pronunciation and diction were totally idiomatic, bringing coquettish charm and not a little irony to the music. 

Sumi Hwang, Hans Graf and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Nathaniel Lim

The best was left for the last, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from the Rückert-Lieder, where Hwang’s limpid lines were wonderfully complemented by Elaine Yeo’s cor anglais, and a reflective mood redolent of the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto. Her brief encore was another Rückert setting, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, which closed the first half on a high. 

It seemed like Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major was just recently performed by the SSO, but that was from Gerard Schwarz’s baton in February 2020, almost three years ago. How the pandemic has distorted temporal perspectives. While Schwarz’s view seemed broader and more expansive, Graf’s took on an edgier outlook from the bloom of its Schumann-inspired opening to the development’s inexorable drive. The orchestra was no less responsive, with passionate spikes also colouring the congenial folk-like atmosphere of the slow movement. 

How the cellos sang in the sublime Poco allegretto third movement, tinged with nostalgia and regret, before answered by guest French hornist Austin Larson’s warm solo towards the end. The tense finale shot out like a tightly-coiled spring, generating frissons of excitement, but before long a perfectly-weighted brass chorale would herald the symphony’s placid close. In Brahms as with Strauss, the message was this: life is short but redemption is always at hand.