The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has much to celebrate

Hans Graf conducting the SSO © Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is one of ten contenders for the 2021 Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award. This year, as has been the case since the award’s inception in 2018, nominees are chosen by the magazine’s editors and reviewers, and the winner will be decided entirely by international public vote. Previous winners include the Philadelphia Orchestra (2020), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (2019) and Seattle Symphony (2018).

In announcing the nominees, Gramophone noted that all ten of the orchestras ‘have released magnificent and often thought-provoking new albums over the past 12 months’. This year’s contenders represent a mix of orchestras with new conductors that caught the editors and reviewers’ attention, as well as recognition of long-term partnerships ‘where experience and mutual respect provide their own rewards’.

The SSO falls into the latter grouping, as the three recordings that garnered it a place in the competition were made with Lan Shui, who was the orchestra’s Music Director from 1997 to 2019. Praised by American Record Guide as having ‘turned a good regional orchestra into a world-class ensemble that plays its heart out at every concert’, Shui is now the SSO’s Conductor Laureate.

In a joint interview, SSO’s Chief Executive Officer Chng Hak-Peng, Director of Artistic Planning Hans Sørensen and Christoph Wichert, a member of the orchestra’s bassoon section since 2008, discuss their reaction to the SSO being in the running for this award; the legacy of Lan Shui; and what the future may bring for the SSO under Hans Graf, its new Chief Conductor.

Rick Perdian: What is the significance of the orchestra’s nomination as one of the candidates for the 2021 Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award?

Chng Hak-Peng: The nomination in itself is a recognition of the orchestra’s recorded sound, dynamic programming and ongoing initiatives, as well as the leadership of SSO’s music directors. We are proud of the efforts placed in making recordings over the past decade, and are honored to see that work recognized by being on the list along with the nine other prestigious international orchestras.

Christoph Wichert: Naturally, we were all really excited about the news of our nomination. Being a member of SSO for 13 years and having the opportunity to see the orchestra develop makes me proud of our work and that our musical journey is being recognized.

In Singapore, we sometimes feel a little removed from the international gravity points of classical music, and our location does not readily lend itself to touring as easily as it does for many other ensembles. Nonetheless, we are very grateful to Singaporean supporters and audiences who were integral to our success, and I truly hope that many of them will vote for us.

Lan Shui conducting the SSO Prague Spring International Festival © Ivan Malý

RP: Lan Shui played a very important role in the SSO’s development. What do you see as his legacy?

CHP: Lan Shui has been said to have turned a great regional orchestra into a world-class ensemble. Under his leadership, the orchestra received invitations to prestigious festivals including the Dresden Music Festival, the Prague Spring International Festival and the BBC Proms. Presenting the works of contemporary composers was also important to him. During his tenure, the SSO commissioned more than 60 works by Singaporean composers, and he personally conducted the premieres of close to 30 of them.

His legacy is also preserved in the more than 30 recordings that he made with the SSO on the BIS label. The selections on Prague Spring International Festival – Symphonies and Orchestral Music, which was released in 2021, were made between 2008 and 2015 and provide insights into the orchestra’s stylistic development over the years. The orchestra has also released albums of contemporary works linked to East Asia, including pieces by Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Bright Sheng, which have received international recognition.

RP: The music of Rachmaninov has proven particularly successful for conductor and orchestra. How do you account for this?

CW:  Rachmaninov’s music fits Shui’s personality very well: it is meticulously crafted but leaves a lot of room for big impulsive gestures. Likewise, Shui endeavors to carefully prepare and rehearse the smallest details in a work, and he is constantly exploring all the possibilities of how music can be shaped. By the time of the concert, the orchestra and conductor are therefore free to be in the moment and focus on the emotional journey of a piece.

In addition, Rachmaninov’s music is very popular with Singaporean audiences. The emotional connection that we developed with the audience (which we missed so much in recent times) and Shui’s sensitivity in that aspect permitted us as players to develop our own sense of timing and flow for this music.

The same holds true for many other pieces from the Late Romantic and Early Modern periods. Shui and the acoustics of our performing home at the Esplanade Concert Hall proved to be a perfect combination for this repertoire, which enabled us to find our own sound for the music.

RP: Can you provide any insights into what the 2021/22 season may bring?

Hans Sørensen: The SSO’s July to September programs are a myriad of performances including two online concerts featuring South Korean violinist Bomsori Kim and the ever-popular SSO National Day Concert

We will also present live concerts such as the SSO’s President’s Young Performers Concert; Love, Carmen and Mozart conducted by Hans Graf with violinist Ye-Eun Choi; a collaboration with the local group More Than Music; and a special evening with Jin Ta, SSO’s Principal Flute, in which he will not only perform but also talk about his life in music. There will be performances by guest artists too, such as violinists Sayaka Shoji and Kam Ning, as well as conductor Jun Markl.

RP: Any closing thoughts on what the SSO has been able to achieve during this period of uncertainty?

CHP: Over the past 18 months, we have worked tirelessly to maintain a connection with our audience in Singapore. Even though COVID-19 led to the cancellation of many concerts and limits on the number of people permitted in the concert hall, we were able to perform for local audiences and also increase our international reach through recordings and streamed performances.

Many of our concerts were performed by a small number of musicians to comply with social-distancing guidelines but, even so, the sound that they produced was a reminder of what has been missing. We look forward to the day when the full orchestra will be able to perform together again before a live audience to captivate our audiences and further build upon the SSO’s 42-year history.

Rick Perdian

Voting for Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year Award remains live until 8am (BST) on 13 September 2021. Votes can be cast here: The Orchestra of the Year will be revealed on 5 October at the 2021 Gramophone Classical Music Awards.

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