Newly elevated SSO music director Hans Graf conducts inaugural concert this month

The Austrian-born tells The Peak that he finds the youthful vitality, enthusiasm, and curiosity of local audiences refreshing.
by Karen Tee
SSO music director Hans Graf

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Hans Graf (Photo: Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Bryan van der Beek)

One of the hallmarks of a cultured city is its orchestra, says maestro Hans Graf.

“Orchestras are the crown jewel of bourgeois society. Like museums or universities that teach Latin or philosophy, they are the most beautiful expressions of culture,” says Graf, who was appointed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s music director last month after two years as its chief conductor.

During his career spanning over 40 years, the 73-year-old Upper Austrian conductor has served as music director of numerous notable orchestras globally, including the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

The charming and chatty music director reveals he intended to step back from music directorship duties in 2013 after helming the Houston Symphony. But after conducting concerts for the SSO in 2015 and 2018, he saw something special, which inspired him to become more involved.

SSO music director Hans Graf

Hans Graf leading the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (Photo: Singapore Symphony Orchestra)

He was attracted by its efficiency and competitiveness. “The orchestra is well run and maintained at an international standard. The musicians are open-minded and keen to produce good results. The way they perform is not biased,” says Graf, who includes the Sydney, Melbourne, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Malaysian Philharmonic orchestras among his regular guest appearances.

Following two years of the pandemic, which curtailed the scope and range of performances he could present with the SSO, he sees his inaugural concert as music director on July 28 and 29 at the Esplanade Concert Hall as an opportunity to “spread my wings”.

“The city could not see the orchestra soar [during the pandemic] but now we will.  After two years of invisibility, I will be very visible,” he says with a chuckle.

The line-up includes Strauss’ Don Juan, Brahms’ Second Symphony, and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, conducted by Graf and featuring Singapore’s violin prodigy Chloe Chua — a performance he promises will be a treat for audiences.

SSO music director Hans Graf

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Hans Graf (Photo: Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Bryan van der Beek)

A younger orchestra audience in Singapore

With a lifetime of experiences performing with major orchestras in the US, Canada and Europe, he says the local audience has also been a revelation.

“There is a certain fresh enthusiasm and curiosity. This is probably because Singapore has a remarkably young audience, with an average age of 35 compared to Europe and America where the average is around 65,” he remarks. “There is a genuine craving for music and artistic fulfilment. We will keep that alive for as long as we can.”

Nonetheless, Graf acknowledges that beginning an orchestra again after almost two years away from performing in such large numbers has its challenges.

“Playing together is a highly developed skill that requires daily practice. For example, if a soccer team does not train together for two years, it will not perform well. We have had to rebuild our inner musical structure, which has been done with enthusiasm and success,” he says. “It is still a little awkward, like taking one’s first steps, but we take joy in every progression.”

Graf’s goal is to restore the orchestra to its pre-Covid-19 performance levels, where it had undertaken a successful tour of Japan and was scheduled to tour Europe. Such tours are crucial to elevating the profile of an orchestra, he says.

“A city will not realise the importance of an orchestra until it comes back with great success,” he observes, recalling a 2000 tour with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to Salzburg and Vienna.

“The orchestra played wonderfully, and the city of Calgary was really proud of them as its ambassadors. We need this sort of worldwide cultural exchange, and that is why touring is very important.”

SSO music director Hans Graf

(Photo: Singapore Symphony Orchestra)

Can a musician make a living by joining an orchestra?

To accomplish his goal, he will need to fill the vacancies left by the retirees over the past two years. Recruiting musicians with the exceptional talent and grit to join an orchestra can require a global search, he explains.

“Being in an orchestra is a very exclusive profession. You need to ask yourself if you deeply love music and if you’re willing to fasten your seatbelt and put in the work. It is a vocation, not just a job, and it is only for people with enthusiasm and patience.”

However, in this material world, the million-dollar question is can a musician make a living by joining an orchestra?

Graf says musicians in Europe earn about 50,000 euros (about S$73,000) a year, while in the Houston Symphony, the base salary is about US$100,000 (about US$138,500). “Singapore has a good salary in the middle range,” he adds. “An orchestra must be able to feed people in a dignified way.”

(Read more: The Healing Power of Music)

This story first published in The Peak Singapore.

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