The pandemic and the distancing measures mandated on performing groups have had a major impact on musical life in Singapore. Limiting ensembles to a maximum of thirty performers onstage has, however, led to creative programming choices. This concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra led by Chief Conductor Hans Graf was an excellent example.

Bomsori Kim, Hans Graf and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Paul von Klenau (1883-1946) is unlikely to be known outside of his native Denmark. He studied and worked in Germany and Austria where Max Bruch, Ludwig Thuille and Max von Schillings among his teachers. A contemporary of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, he was also influenced by Arnold Schoenberg and Second Viennese School atonalism. His works included six operas (with the artist Rembrandt and Queen Elizabeth I among his subjects) and nine symphonies.

While his Ninth Symphony (1945) was a 90-minute choral symphony in eight movements, the Eighth (1943), subtitled “In olden style”, runs its course of four movements within just 15 minutes. Cast in the key of D major, it is first cousin to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a pastiche of the symphonic form as perfected by Haydn and Mozart. Its musical idiom is more Romantic, closer to the likes of Schubert, although one might also cite similarities to Max Reger (without the turgidity) or Richard Strauss (without the opulence).

Its attractiveness lay in brevity and directness of ideas, including a sunny but brief sonata-styled first movement followed by a slow movement opened by woodwinds accompanied by cello pizzicatos. There were solo passages for flute and oboe, lovingly voiced by principals Jin Ta and Rachel Walker. A mere hint of sobriety in the third movement’s Menuet was soon dispelled by the Rondo finale’s mercurial streak lit up by Jon Dante’s trumpet, where the convergence of Mozart and Prokofiev (without the irony) became most apparent. While this is neither a work of striking originality nor genius, it is nevertheless well crafted and it received the world premiere – a performance of immediacy and sincerity – it deserved.

Bomsori Kim and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Korean violinist Bomsori Kim became the first overseas soloist to perform with the SSO in over a year, and the high expectations engendered were not to be disappointed. Mozart’s underrated Violin Concerto no.. 1 in B flat major, a 1774 work by the 17-year-old prodigy, proved to be an ideal vehicle for Kim’s musicality and sensitivity. A sweet tone was coaxed from her 1774 Guadagnini, never over-bright in intensity but well-proportioned to the chamber-sized forces supporting her. Only in the first and third movement cadenzas did she take the liberty to let rip, and this was also tastefully done. As with all of Mozart’s slow movements, lyrical beauty in aria-like passages dominated, as the orchestra provided discreet and restrained accompaniment throughout. The virtuoso show in the sprightly finale was nicely balanced by Kim’s choice of encore: the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Violin Partita, where her unaccompanied violin’s voice was given full rein.

The concert closed with Schubert’s youthful Fifth Symphony where, from its outset, the freshness of spring bubbled up like uncorked spirits. Under Graf’s direction, the first movement benefited from a clarity of thought and well-defined lines, allied by refined and cultivated playing. A good balance between strings and woodwinds was achieved in the slow movement, where not a hair fell out of place. The spirit of Mozart hovered in the third movement’s bucolic Menuet (in G minor, thus bringing to mind Wolfgang Amadeus’ Symphony no. 40) and the ebullient and fleet-footed finale. While the music’s merry-making delighted, it was the ensemble’s sense of nuances and subtleties which made the performance a memorable one.