Despite Covid-19 virus transmission fears reaching fever pitch in Singapore, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was one of few local arts groups which have not cancelled its performances. Guest artists, British violinist Tasmin Little and American conductor Gerard Schwarz had not cancelled either, and their faith was repaid with a goodly-sized audience. Although some concert-goers were seen donning face-masks, there was hardly a cough to be heard between movements. A good sign indeed.

Gerard Schwarz, Tasmin Little and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Four movements from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet opened the concert. Grinding dissonances from excellent brass at the beginning of Montagues and Capulets set the tone for its imperious march. The Young Juliet was portrayed as nimble and playful, while the Minuet maintained a stately pomp. Credit goes to Tang Xiao Ping’s tenor saxophone for conferring on the music a lustrous allure. The orchestral showcase that is The Death of Tybalt found the strings in immaculate form, and the suite closed impressively with emphatically punched-out chords.

Tasmin Little’s final hurrah as touring soloist in Max Bruch’s evergreen First Violin Concerto was probably the reason why the audience had braved the viral scare. And she did not disappoint. From the opening solo in the Vorspiel – bare and totally exposed – she arrestingly and indelibly carved out her credo. It wasn’t the widest of sonorities but her message was clear and direct. What followed was a passionate reading of a familiar showpiece, well-supported by the orchestra with every step she took. The take-home moments were in the Adagio. The pure and pristine quality of Little’s phrasing were presented with breathtaking simplicity and beauty.

Tasmin Little, Gerard Schwarz and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The Hungarian-influenced finale was one ecstatic outburst of unfettered joy, with big moments which both soloist and orchestra did not stint on. Little’s bows were greeted with loud and prolonged applause, and she reciprocated with a slashing, no-holds-barred take on the final two movements (Poarga Romaneasca and Maruntel) from Bartok’s Romanian Dances. Her presence on stage will be sadly missed.

Brahms’ Third Symphony is sometimes described as the German’s “Cinderella” symphony. While it certainly cannot be called unpopular, its paucity in concert programmes relative to the other three symphonies was case in point. Nevertheless, Schwarz’s view was one of broadness and expansivity. The opening chords of the Schumannesque theme of the first movement were nailed with a definitive stamp of authority, thus dictating the rest of the symphony. The development section was gripping in the degree of tension generated, balanced by the pastoral feel of the slow movement. There were some delicious dissonances, looking forward to Schoenberg but these resolved almost immediately.

The symphony’s beating heart belonged in the Poco allegretto third movement where cellos breathed its melancholic flowing melody. Luscious string sound was its crowning glory, and Han Chang Chou’s glorious French horn solo was the icing on the cake. The finale opened quietly and mysteriously, but this was merely the prelude to a rising urgency which was whipped up by Schwarz to a brimming climax. The movement gradually wound down to a perfectly voiced brass chorale heralding a quiet close. Perhaps this reticence was the key to the symphony’s elusiveness, but this was every bit a memorable performance.