Another string to orchestra's bow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has become the first local art group to receive the Ministry of Culture's prestigious Innovation Award, after developing a modern version of the huqin, a stringed instrument.

The orchestra's work on the bowed instrument was praised by the contest jury for successfully blending 1,000-year-old tradition with modern technology and introducing it to the world, Wang Feng, a ministry official, said on its website.

The orchestra was named last week as one of the 20 winners of the national prize among 144 entries from top institutions. Each winner will receive 20,000 yuan (HK$24,500) at a ceremony in Anhui later this year.

For Yan Huichang, the orchestra's artistic director who spearheaded its work on the huqin more than a decade ago, the prize vindicates years of hard work in the face of budget constraints and controversy.

The project involved adjusting the inner structure of the huqin, which comes in various sizes like the violin family in the West.

The biggest change was replacing the python skin that envelops the soundbox - which gives the huqin its unique sound - with a biodegradable synthetic membrane.

'There has been opposition to the change. We were accused of breaching time-honoured tradition,' said Yan. 'But when we were barred by countries [from performing] on animal rights grounds, and when our python-skinned instruments became unplayable due to changes in climate, we realised we had to go ahead with the changes,' he said.

Yuen Shi-chun, 61, who played for the orchestra for 35 years and who is now its research and development officer for musical instruments, crafted the new huqin by hand.

Yuen, who began dreaming up tweaks to the huqin almost 10 years ago, got the support he needed when the orchestra agreed to fund the work.

Celina Chin, the orchestra's CEO, said it had to 'make do by [generating] publicity and squeezing funds from the education budget'.

The project, which lasted four-and-a-half years, required HK$1 million annually. It was criticised by the government after a 2010 audit report found a lack of 'milestone dates' in the programme.

Despite these hurdles, the modifications resulted in a more powerful sound and more homogeneity, factors which are especially noticeable in bass instruments. The new huqin, ministry official Wang said, would be promoted across the country.

'The prize holds major significance and should cheer and inspire everyone and all sectors in Hong Kong,' said Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing on his blog.

Tsang nominated the so-called 'Eco-huqin series' - the only Hong Kong entry - for the competition, held every three years since 2000.

With a top prize under orchestra's belt and renewed interest in the project, the veteran Yuen said more work lay ahead.

'The project is by no means complete. And it will need the government's support to take it further, such as expanding the one-man workshop and production line, and for the next phase covering plucked and woodwind instruments,' he said.