Singaporean conductor Kahchun Wong became a household name in his homeland after being awarded first prize at the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in 2016. Since then, concerts by the Chief Conductor Designate of the Japan Philharmonic have been sold-out affairs. His exuberant podium style has been eye-catching but is the music-making worthy of all the hype? 

Daniel Lozakovich and the Singapore Symphony
© Chrisppics+ | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

This Singapore Symphony concert opened with the world premiere of Aeriq’s Lullaby by Singaporean composer Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, who was Wong’s contemporary at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Conservatory of Music. She made history of her own by becoming the first-ever Singaporean Malay music graduate from the National University of Singapore, and a creator who successfully incorporates indigenous Malay music and idioms in her classical compositions. 

However, this nine-minute programmatic work, inspired by motherhood and the birth of her son, had no such ethnic influences. Its idiom is closer to film music, redolent of the Walt Disney variety, easy on the ear and cloying at times. Some dissonance was afforded in the central segment titled Through Sleepless Nights, where woodwind glissandi and brassy wails depicted demons of night terrors and distress. One is reminded of a section in Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben where snivelling critics and foes are parodied. Guest concertmaster Wang Jing’s violin solo provided reassurance and A Mother’s Prayer which closed the work was bathed in the warm embrace of C major. All’s well in this child’s world. 

Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, a performance that came across more like chamber music than a commanding show of solo prowess. His tone suggested intimacy, modestly-scaled in the face of the sometimes unyielding orchestral accompaniment, but coming into his own in the first movement cadenza. The slow movement’s song without words was pure lyricism which belied underlying tensions, and it was the elfin dance of the finale, superbly controlled, which pulled out all the stops. Lozakovich’s two solo encores showcased more of his metier. Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana brought a collective gasp of recognition (Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 being its main subject) from the audience and Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale, sounding even better when heard unaccompanied. 

For the concert’s second half, Wong emerged with a change in outfit to lead Brahms' Fourth Symphony from memory. Conducting without a score is uncommon in Singapore (although former SSO Music Director Lan Shui did it regularly) but it still appears very impressive as long as the performance matched the ambition. No fears for Wong whose vision of Brahms is undimmed and untainted with willfulness or idiosyncracy. The opening Allegro non troppo was exactly that, fast but not too much so, allowing much orchestral detail to be savoured, and build-up to the climax to be sufficiently shattering. Similarly, the second movement’s procession was perfectly judged, exhibiting restraint before blooming into expansiveness on the crest of a wave. 

The Scherzo’s celebratory posture and high-octane rousing had some in the audience applauding prematurely, and Wong used this moment to acknowledge triangle player Mark Suter’s precious moments in the limelight. The closing Passacaglia was the symphony’s crowning glory, with its series of short variations on a ground bass tautly held together with an inner urgency, marshalling the orchestral forces at full tilt and bringing both symphony and concert to a grandstanding conclusion. Wong showed he is not all flash but a keen and thoughtful interpreter at work. His return appearances in Singapore will be keenly awaited.