28 January 2019

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Turns Round

This weekend just passed witnessed the final concerts of Lan Shui’s tenure as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  He was not the first - nor will he be the last - outgoing Musical Director of an orchestra to select Mahler’s Second Symphony as his swansong.  There’s something about its message of life after death, its over-the-top emotional musical language and its requirement for huge musical forces to be controlled by a single conductor (and a couple of off-stage monitors) which makes it irresistible to those who want to say their goodbyes with a flourish.  And however good or bad the performance, however accepting or resisting the audience is to Mahler’s idiom, its final moments never fail to stir an audience into a frenzy of applause and ovation.  I first heard it when Otto Klemperer directed a performance in London with the (then) New Philharmonia Orchestra.  I was bowled over, and there was no doubt that the occasion – Klemperer reduced by illness and old age to an immovable, static hulking presence on the podium – was highly-charged with emotion, it clearly being his own personal swansong (I can’t recall whether or not it was billed as such, but I don’t think he conducted the orchestra live again).  I sat through other performances – Charles Groves, Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Horenstein – which induced an emotional response above and beyond what the music had to offer, and was involved in several more myself as organist (I never sung in it) which affected me very profoundly.  So I can readily understand and appreciate the huge upwelling of emotional hyperbole which those who performed in or attended the Shui performances have registered on various Facebook posts.

For my part, Mahler 2 lost its hold over me after the iniquitous Gilbert Kaplan got his hands on it (and I had the dubious privilege of playing in it under him once).  For those who may have forgotten – or perhaps never known – Gilbert Kaplan was an American businessman, with a great deal of money to burn and a burning desire to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony.  Indeed, for many years, he conducted nothing else.  It was an obsession with him, and he went to extraordinary lengths to try and recreate exactly the kind of performance he earnestly believed Mahler himself would have created.  As with all such single-minded obsessives, he went wildly over the top, twisting and distorting tempi in a way no natural musician (and I am sure Mahler was one of these) would have done, and taking almost vicarious pleasure out of doing the most unexpected things.  I am sure much of what he did was prompted by a sincere belief that he was basing his interpretation on Mahler’s, but as with everyone who tries to replicate someone else’s musical interpretation, he did it without the soul or understanding of the original, so it came across as ridiculous and weird; rather like Dick van Dyke attempting a Cockney accent in the original Mary Poppins.
Gilbert Kaplan - obsessing over Mahler 2 (picture from Washington Post)

Sadly, I can never now hear Mahler 2 without it bringing to mind those grotesque Kaplanisms, and I look suspiciously on any conductor who attempts to impose an element of “interpretation” on the performance of a work which, in most cases, needs only to be kept on the straight and narrow to yield up its full glories.  On Friday night, I couldn’t help thinking that Shui was trying just too hard to make something of it, and I failed to fall under the spell.  I was otherwise engaged on the Saturday performance (see the earlier post to find out what it was, and what in my opinion so totally eclipsed the Mahler), but reliable witnesses attest to the fact that Saturday’s was, by any standards, a truly magnificent performance.

But there was one thing which Shui did in his performance which really opened up my eyes and ears and made a major impact on me; tired and jaundiced as those eyes and ears are when it comes to Mahler 2.  He turned the orchestra around.

Of course, Shui has done this in more ways than one.  He has turned the orchestra round from the mediocre regional band it was when he took over in 1997 to what it is today; in my view one of the four finest orchestras in Asia (and I would not like to attempt to put the Shanghai Phil, the Hong Kong Phil, the NHK Symphony or the Singapore Symphony in any kind of pecking order).  Enthusing from the platform before Friday’s concert about the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s development under Shui’s tenure, Chairman of the Orchestra’s Board of Governors Goh Yew Lin described it as “one of the world’s great orchestras”.  That’s a wildly exaggerated assertion, but the fact that he could make it without laughter breaking out in the hall (and I daresay some who have never heard a truly great orchestra would have accepted his word at face value) pays ample testament to the extraordinary achievement of Shui in turning the Singapore Symphony Orchestra around.

This, though, was not Shui’s masterstroke on Friday.  It was the physical turning of the orchestra, so that the cellos were ranged along the front of the stage instead of the usual layout of violas at the front and cellos tucked into the middle.  The issue of how orchestras sit on stage has become a much debated and often heated issue in recent years.  The Singapore Symphony has spent most of the past decade with its violas out to the front, and to hear it in the so-called “English” layout with, additionally, the harps at the front beside the cellos and the double basses buried deeper into the body of the orchestra, was a revelation.  It opened up the sound, it gave real balance to the tone and it added a depth and richness to the overall sound quality that made it seem like an altogether different orchestra.

How it looked on Friday (picture from SSO)
Kaplan had studied intensely how Mahler had set out his orchestra, and it was not the same as Shui’s plan.  But Shui’s plan worked magnificently, because he knew both the hall and the orchestra, and had clearly realised that in a work of these dimensions, this particular layout would work best.  Orchestral layouts seem to follow trends, and it is in any case impracticable to turn an orchestra around for each individual work merely to present it in its best aural manner.  But having heard just what a huge difference (improvement) this layout made in this case, I would hope we might find such thinking in the new Musical Director, whoever and whenever someone gets to follow in Lan Shui’s footsteps.


  1. Dear Marc, I was startled to read that I had called the SSO one of the world's great orchestras. That certainly is something we aspire for the SSO. What I said in my thanks to Lan Shui is as follows: "...you never lost sight of the dream we shared of building for Singapore one of the world’s great orchestras." Kind regards, Yew Lin

  2. My apologies for mishearing you - I did think it was a somewhat extravagant claim, even though a very laudable one when it's aspirational!!!