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A Postcard from Asia’s World City and its Orchestra

China is undoubtedly the place to be for classical music. Since I arrived in Hong Kong three years ago, barely a month has passed without the news of some major strategic alliance between a western music institution and a Chinese one. The touring traffic of great orchestras and artists seems more like a flood, as eyes move to the startling Chinese growth industry in classical music. And the eyes boggle – an estimated 40,000,000 piano students, thousands of concert halls (with more under construction), and a strong curiosity and engagement in our artform. In other parts of the world classical music seems to stutter, but China is forging ahead, and even if the nature of these connections is still being defined, they bear witness to huge optimism about the future of Western art music in Asia.

Hong Kong is also part of that world, but its unique history and overlapping identities as a former colony and a ‘Special Administrative Region’, not to mention Hong Kong people’s own feelings towards Mainland China (which are often ambiguous), continue to hold this city apart. We trade on a long-established identity of being ‘where east meets west’. Hong Kong’s current tag- line is ‘Asia’s World City’. Its flag features the Bauhinia flower, an introduced species; the ‘barren rock’ of Hong Kong island is lush with plants which are not native, and crowded by skyscrapers which trumpet western cosmopolitan style.

Where does a western orchestra fit into such a picture? Could it, too, be viewed as a transplanted relic of the departed colonial influence? Could it be part of the exciting new wave which is happening to our north? Should it be a local ensemble, focused inwards on servicing the city, or a truly international ‘flagship’ orchestra, with the sole purpose of bringing the world’s music stars to Hong Kong? These are all questions which the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has asked itself in recent years, and it’s a challenge to provide a snapshot of such a rich combination of factors.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic in action under the baton of new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden.

The HK Phil is in many ways the perfect reflection of its home city; we are about to commence our 40th professional season, but the origins of the orchestra go back more than 100 years, to the foundation of our ancestor the ‘Sino-British Orchestra’ (whose first conductor was a moonlighting property auctioneer – an apt historical footnote for such a commercially driven city). Today, 45 of our 90 musicians come from China or Hong Kong, and of our internationally recruited musicians, 25 now are permanent residents, meaning that they have chosen to lead their lives here.

As for our audience, they are our biggest blessing, young and highly engaged. Hong Kong’s population may be ageing, but its concert-going public is youthful and musical. Learning an instrument is a vital part of a good upbringing in this city. Within a five-minute walk of my home are a dozen small music colleges, with a steady flow in and out of kids and their instruments. These children are often brought to concerts, and our hall is always brimming with (mostly) attentive young children, brought along to hear a noted soloist, and to be given something to aim for as performers. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, the youthfulness of our audience was a source of wonder. Nowadays, when I attend concerts outside Asia, the reverse skew of average age can be just as surprising. In Hong Kong, we ‘get them in young’.

Students vying for places at certain schools are even encouraged to choose their instrument strategically. Double bass, bassoon or harp, for example, are popularly chosen, in the hope that this will make winning a place at the desired school more likely – the orchestra is more likely to need them. A few years ago when we programmed a harp concerto in our subscription series, we discovered that nearly 500 young people in Hong Kong were studying the instrument.

This sort of ‘white heat’ in music study has another potential benefit for the Hong Kong Philharmonic; when we recruit for administrative positions, I’m constantly amazed by the very high proportion of applicants who have their instrumental diploma. It’s tantalizing that so many skilled musicians might be interested in artistic administration. But there is a flip-side: very few seem to continue as active musicians once the achievement is on their CV. The competitive arena often dictates that they will pursue other goals. With the diploma, the musical mission is accomplished, and one is left wondering how much deeply-felt love for music this system is actually engendering.

The main limitation on the orchestra and on most other artistic enterprises in Hong Kong is the venue situation. This is a crowded city; facilities are at a premium. For graphic artists the competition for gallery and workshop space is fierce. For an orchestra, there are no more than a handful of halls in Hong Kong which will take a symphony orchestra’s footprint. These spaces are run as democratically as possible, for obvious reasons given the demand on them, but it means that artistic planning is limited by the shorter timelines by which the venues plan their schedules. A solution is on the horizon; the West Kowloon Cultural District will add over a dozen performance venues for theatre, music and dance to Hong Kong. It’s hoped that this important development will make Hong Kong a true creative hub in East Asia, but a new orchestral venue is still years away.

In the meantime, we have worked towards broadening the appeal of the HK Phil, introducing new concert models and starting times with great success. Even though there is a long history of pops and ‘Canto-pop’ concerts, the Orchestra’s image still reflects the traditional model of what an orchestra can offer. It’s fun to play against this image: in addition to a number of multimedia concerts last season, we presented a jazz concert starring James Morrison and a band of Hong Kong’s best ‘jazz cats’. In the lead-up, I was fielding questions from intrigued journalists about how the fusion of jazz music with orchestra would even work. But in execution, the concerts were hugely popular and attracted a new audience to our hall.

One challenge which I think many orchestras are facing around the world is particularly pronounced in a city like Hong Kong: the many stories and legends which inform repertoire, and by which we can help explain it, are less and less well known. To introduce a work like Holst’s Planets, for example, it’s extremely helpful to know the back-stories of Greco-Roman deities. One can then move directly to the conceptual leaps that Holst made between the planet, the deity and the observer. It’s not a case (as it might be in the West) of people being less acquainted with these old stories and archetypes. Here, an equally complex and rich tradition of Chinese astrology renders the Greco-Roman version an obscure reference, which itself needs introduction and explanation for many people.

Another example is the Jupiter symphony. At what point does one give up splitting hairs, and resort to the bare fundamental of the name as the vast majority of people know it – to market the symphony with a visual of the planet? I was once told that Haydn’s Creation would be a tough sell, since the general public “no longer really knows the story” – this was in reference to the Australian public. How much trickier when the story is itself not fundamental to the cultural tradition where the performance is taking place? Working in Hong Kong has made me especially aware of this challenging gap, and that we can make no assumptions about the familiarity of narratives which were deeply ingrained in the composer’s culture.

The HK Phil has big plans, coming off the back of Edo de Waart’s eight-year tenure as Chief Conductor – a period of unprecedented musical development for the orchestra. With our new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, a series of international tours is in preparation. We have begun a recording project of Chinese composers conducting their own works, for release on the NAXOS label. Tan Dun and Bright Sheng are the first composers to be thus featured. During the past season we have renewed our local relationships with local cultural institutions such as Hong Kong’s Space Museum, its Polar Museum, Academy of Performing Arts, and many others.  The orchestra is in a period of growth in all directions.

As for the hurdles we face, a unique one is the annual typhoon season, beginning in summer and continuing through the first weeks of our season. All of Hong Kong stays glued to the weather report, as tropical storms brew in the South China Sea, then wend their way towards land. An alert system tells us when to close windows, take pot plants inside, avoid coastal areas, and eventually cancel orchestral services, because leaving one’s home is too dangerous. It doesn’t happen often, but it lends an extra intensity to a week of rehearsals and performances when a typhoon is bearing down on us!

Looking around the region, the relative isolation of the orchestras of East Asia means that each has a unique story to tell. In Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Macau and Hong Kong, orchestras evolved more or less separately, responding to the (largely expatriate) hunger in each community for music. The distances are still too great for us to be competitors, and cultural differences mean that we often don’t share programming priorities. But we are facing similar challenges in our own environments, and also the opportunity of the current turning of tables: the world engine of classical music will soon be China. Being so close to the giant to our north, it’s a fascinating time to be working here and contributing to the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s exciting journey.

Raff Wilson, © 2013

Formerly Artistic Administration Manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Raff Wilson has been Director of Artistic Planning for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra since December 2010.