Post-pandemic recovery for Singapore Symphony Orchestra under way with Hans Graf, music director, on a recruitment drive
- The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new Austrian music director, Hans Graf, is leading its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, when venues had to close
- He is auditioning to fill several vacancies and is conscious of the need for musicians, like football players, to practise as a team ‘to get it going again’
Expectations for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new season have risen among its musicians and regular concertgoers since it appointed Austrian conductor Hans Graf music director in June.
Graf has been the orchestra’s chief conductor since 2019, when the previous music director, Lan Shui, retired after 22 years. The 73-year-old says his new role will allow him to help the orchestra emerge stronger from one of the most challenging periods in its 43-year history.
Speaking to the Post between rehearsals last week, Graf said that when he first arrived in Singapore, the orchestra’s schedule had broken down because of the pandemic.
“We had so many cancellations. We were supposed to tour in Japan and Europe earlier this year but all of that was impossible. There was no travelling out of Singapore,” he said.
He said the musicians had lost momentum in the past two years. “We have to work to get it going again. If a football team does not play for two years together, they are still good players, but they have to train and they have to train together,” he says.
Nonetheless Graf is confident he can step up to the plate – and he has experience on his side.
Graf has been music director of the Houston Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, and has an extensive discography that includes all the symphonies of Mozart and Schubert and the complete orchestral works of French composer Henri Dutilleux.
One of his most urgent tasks is to fill vacancies – a number of players left the orchestra in the last two years, including its concertmaster. He sees room to increase the proportion of foreign players in the orchestra, who currently make up 22 per cent of the musicians.
“We just had a hopeful audition for a principal horn player today. We have 16 auditions ahead of us, because auditions were postponed since nobody could travel because of Covid. We are in search of a concertmaster, which is very difficult,” Graf said. “We are renewing step by step. This is painstaking work.”
While Graf finds Singapore an attractive city to live in, he admitted that there are many things to consider for international players.
“If you go to an American orchestra, you can bring your family, your wife can work, you have schools that your children can join for free.
“Here in Singapore, if you’re not [a permanent resident] you have to pay for the education for your children. If your contract is over, you have 90 days to go home.
“If you have a spouse who has a good job at home and they have to give up their job to come with you, then there’s divorce in the air,” he said.
The music director said it was important to retain international talent for the long term because a good orchestra needs its musicians to play together for 10 or 20 years and grow together as a cohesive team. But equally important is the nurturing of Singaporean talent, he added.
“Singaporean talent is growing but the growth is not over a year. It takes 10 to 12 years to nurture a gifted child into a full-grown musician. You cannot accelerate the musical development of a human being,” he said.
Nonetheless, citing the drastic downsizing of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra last year because of the pandemic, the maestro said he is grateful to be working at an organisation that receives ample financial support from the Singaporean government, which views the orchestra as “an essential part of Singapore [which] adds to the profile of Singapore internationally”.
The orchestra wasn’t completely paralysed by the pandemic. It launched a digital concert hall of sorts in 2020, called “SSOLounge”, that enabled audiences to enjoy live and pre-recorded performances from the confines of their homes. It has since put 16 concerts online.
A major draw for the concert of music by Richard Strauss, Mozart and Brahms was Chloe Chua, a 15-year-old Singaporean violin star who is the SSO’s artist-in-residence this season.
The child prodigy, who won first prize in the junior division of the 2018 Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, was a mesmerising soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, and her popularity on social media would have helped the recording receive 37,000 views.
This week, Graf and the SSO will return to the stage with the Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman in a programme that includes a new work by Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6.
Graf points out that audience building, especially among the young, is a key focus of the SSO and a matter of survival for every orchestra.
“We have in Singapore an enviably young audience. In Europe, the average age of the audience is 65. At that age, you have a seasoned audience that knows what it wants, has a real love for music and is financially able to support the orchestra.
“At SSO, we aim to teach the 25- and 35-year-olds to love this kind of music and if even 5 per cent of them can come back on a bit of a regular basis, we are happy,” he said.