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Friday, September 22, 2017, 18:19
Growing young at 40
By Rebecca Lo
Friday, September 22, 2017, 18:19 By Rebecca Lo

In its 40th year Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra continues to come up with fresh perspectives on traditional Chinese music and explore ways of drawing in the younger audiences. A report by Rebecca Lo.

The Forty Years with Hong Kong concert, debuting tonight, traces the journey of Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO), from being a government-funded local troupe to a world-class orchestra, serving as the city’s cultural ambassador. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

On the seventh floor of Sheung Wan Municipal Services Building — a level above the floor where the fruit vendors, butchers and fishmongers conduct their businesses — a bunch of musicians are hard at work. 

This rabbit warren of corridors, studios, rehearsal rooms and offices have been Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra’s (HKCO) home since 2001, when it parted ways with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. (It is now managed as a corporate entity, by the Council of the HKCO Ltd.) These are the rooms where very fine music is made by true-blue professionals, although the facilities look deceptively high-school like. 

The conductor Yan Huichang serves as HKCO’s principal. The maestro’s office, a large room filled with trophies, photos and memorabilia, is like a time capsule of what HKCO has accomplished since Yan took over the reins in 1997.

HKCO celebrates its 40th anniversary this year as the city’s leading modern Chinese orchestra. A series of concerts will be performed in celebration, beginning Sept 22. Understandably, every musician involved in the upcoming celebratory concerts is working tirelessly towards D-day. The Forty Years with Hong Kong concert is meant to encapsulate HKCO’s journey from starting out as a government-funded local troupe to shaping up into a very fine world-class orchestra that also serves as the city’s cultural ambassador to the world.

HKCO principal, the conductor Yan Huichang, believes in keeping the best of the past while making the orchestra relevant for the future. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

“HKCO has no competitor in the region,” states reputed cultural expert Chow Fan-fu, a Hong Kong-based RTHK music host and prolific critic who wrote the book, Transforming into a World Class Orchestra — the HKCO’s First 10 Years after Corporatisation

Much of this success, Chow suggests, is owed to Maestro Yan, who was made “principal conductor for life” this year. “The three most difficult organizations to manage are hotels, airports and orchestras. Every member of an orchestra is a diva, yet they all have to work together. No other HKCO conductor has lasted as long or done so much with his musicians as Yan,” says Chow.

Innovation and heritage

The opening concert, Forty Years with Hong Kong, brings back the orchestra’s former suona principal Guo Yazhi to perform alongside young voices of the Hong Kong Children’s Choir. The program combines nostalgic favorites from the past 40 seasons as well as a fresh composition by the local music writer Ng Cheuk-yin, commissioned specially for the occasion.  

Zhang Chongxue has been with HKCO for 11 years and will be performing an eco-erhu solo piece in the 40th anniversary season opening concert. “The age of 40 suggests ripeness in life, symbolizing maturity,” she enthuses. “Led by Maestro Yan, we have repeatedly made history. Our Eco-Huqin Series received the fourth Ministry of Culture Innovation Awards of China. This was a major achievement for the orchestra — possibly making us the world’s only orchestra in terms of owning self-developed instruments. Being dedicated to innovation on the one hand and heritage conservation on the other, our orchestra strives to lead the road towards developing Chinese music.” 

Pianist Colleen Lee says her association with HKCO has helped her interpret Chinese music. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Yan is well aware that a section of the city’s millennials may not care all that much for classical Chinese orchestral music. He is keen to collaborate with younger, up-and-coming musicians to create a connection with potential younger audiences. One of the season’s highlights is Conducting Duo, due on April 13 and 14 in 2018, where young conductors Kwok Kin-ming and Woo Pak-tuen would share the stage with dizi soloist Chan Chi-yuk and pianist Colleen Lee. 

“We invited these young musicians to join us partly to dispel the idea that Chinese orchestral music is only for old people,” says Yan with a wry grin. 

“HKCO is one of the foremost Chinese orchestras — its creativity and innovative programming makes the difference,” states Lee, a pianist trained in the Western classical tradition. “I am privileged to have the opportunity to work with HKCO. It has given me a sense of perspective while interpreting Chinese music. I look forward to our April collaboration, especially working with my former classmate (Woo) as the conductor.” 

Yan believes that the way forward is to keep the best of the past while making the orchestra relevant for the future. “We cannot keep doing the same thing for the next 40… or 100 years,” he states. “I am always looking for new approaches and new talent. We conduct worldwide searches for musicians to fill vacant posts. We have artists from Singapore, and Malaysia. We typically listen to a recording of the applicant’s work to seek out the best of the best even before meeting the shortlisted candidates in person for auditions.”

HKCO strives to lead the road toward developing Chinese music, says eco-erhu player Zhang Chongxue. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

HKCO have a tradition of performing overseas. In 2017 HKCO toured St Petersburg, Sochi, Tongyeong in South Korea, and seven Chinese mainland cities including Tianjin, Shenyang and Wuhan as part of HKSAR’s 20th anniversary event roster. HKCO holds a string of Guinness Book of Records titles — such as holding a concert featuring more than 500 dizi players in 2005. 

“I want HKCO to be the best Chinese orchestra in the world,” deadpans Yan. “These past decades that I have been its artistic director, we have made great strides to promote Chinese music and culture. We started the first competition for Chinese music; other cities have followed our lead. Our youth orchestra encourages young people to take up traditional instruments. We host cozy chamber concerts as well as large ensembles with choral groups. The more the collaborations, the more people know about us.” 

Yan feels confident about bringing HKCO into its forties: “We have a very diverse program. Previously, we focused only on performance. Going forward, we aim to build upon our strengths, and continue towards innovative artistic collaborations, fostering young talent, and bringing something new to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.”

If you go

Forty Years with Hong Kong

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra 40th anniversary concert 

Suona: Guo Yazhi

Eco-erhu: Zhang Chongxue

Chorus: The Hong Kong Children’s Choir

Conducted by Yan Huichang

Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 10, Salisbury Road Tsim Sha Tsui

Sept 22-23

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