It can be difficult for a young soloist to escape the shadow of one’s teachers and mentors, especially when the said masters are great artists and forces of personality. The obvious hazard is that impressionable artists risk becoming clones of their elders. That was why legendary virtuosos like Horowitz or Heifetz were reluctant to take on many personal students.

Ye-Eun Choi
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Korean violinist Ye-Eun Choi, soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5 in A major with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, was mentored by Anne-Sophie Mutter since her teenage years, so one may be excused for imagining the great German in her twenties elegantly emerging onto the stage to perform. Choi’s stage persona and glamour outfit, a pink slimline gown, seemed to channel her illustrious tutor. It also helped that the distinguished conductor, Hans Graf, is a Salzburg native. 

Make no mistake, Choi is a very fine musician in her own right, one who accorded Mozart with every bit of decorum he deserved. Her entries were clean and crystal clear, her tone healthy but not oversized. With beautiful phrasing, faultless intonation, and exercising some latitude in the Joachim cadenzas, hers was a reading to enjoy. From the slow movement’s cantabile lines to the Rondo’s Turkish romp, there was also variety and contrast to make this a memorable outing. 

But why was it so difficult to erase visions (or hallucinations?) of Mutter and Karajan from the subconscious? A fixation arising from an unfulfilled longing to see Anne-Sophie, who has yet to perform at the Esplanade? (Mutter’s last appearance in Singapore was in 1999, playing with the SSO at Victoria Concert Hall.) The mind boggled. 

Illusion of another kind was hearing music from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen in modern disguise and without voices. Programming Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (written in 1967 for his Bolshoi ballerina wife Maya Plisetskaya) was a programming coup of sorts. Scored for strings, timpani and a massive battery of percussion, it became a showcase of instrumental prowess, also fulfilling local pandemic performing restrictions of not having more than 30 musicians onstage.

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

This was Bizet yet not Bizet, the familiar melodies fed through a series of prisms and distorting mirrors. The 13 movements seemed randomly sequenced, opening with a ghost of the Habanera as an introduction. Nothing followed the order of the opera itself but one would still be reassured by its heartwarming tunes, gratefully voiced by the strings, whenever these appeared. It was the five percussionists – Christian Schiøler (timpani), Jonathan Fox, Mark Suter, Mario Choo and Lim Meng Keh – who stole the show. They did the score’s heavy lifting, colouring and tarting up every aria, dance, entr'acte and intermezzo with anarchic make up. Little wonder this work was roundly condemned by Soviet cultural apparatchiks for “turning Carmen into a whore” after its premiere. 

Loud and abrupt entries, unanticipated accents and chopping up of melodic lines are part and parcel of Shchedrin's deconstruction. In the rousing Torero, the melody disappeared for stretches while retaining its percussive beat. Tacet strings and listeners were meant to imagine the tune in their heads, like some burrowing earworm, all this before the percussion turns it into a grotesque May Day parade. Even the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne makes an unexpected cameo, possibly as a tribute to wayward girls. 

Not to be left out, the Singapore strings had their day in the Flower Song, rising to an impassioned climax and later eliciting pathos in the sober Fortune Telling scene. One knows the composer has succeeded when the listener simply forgets the sung words. Under Hans Graf’s firm guiding hand, Shchedrin’s Carmen stole the show and was thus accorded the evening's longest applause.