Stage set for musical classic at the Valley

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am

All-time favourites on programme as Symphony Under The Stars heads to racecourse

In 1717, when King George I of Britain sat in his royal barge procession floating down the River Thames, luxuriating in the sounds of Handel's Water Music written specially for the occasion, he drew a circle of exclusivity around the enjoyment of outdoor classical music that was to continue for many years.

Royal patronage of the arts in Europe was the lifeblood of many composers and performers in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was also a barrier to the sharing of musical treasures with the less privileged in society.

The past century has seen patronage growing from less aristocratic sources, which has happily opened the doors to larger audiences from different backgrounds.

In 2006, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) presented Symphony Under The Stars, its first large-scale, open air classical concert, on the waterfront in Hung Hom, which received a standing ovation from the 20,000-strong audience - a remarkable success by any standards.

With renewed financial support from the Swire Group Charitable Trust, the concert will take place again this year, but at a different venue across the harbour.

'Last year's Symphony Under The Stars was a magical evening in which the Hong Kong Philharmonic shook off the formality of the concert hall and took great music to the people,' said Timothy Calnin, the orchestra's chief executive.

'Since then, we have received constant inquiries asking when we'll do it again, so we're thrilled that the concert is taking place on Friday, November 30, this time in Happy Valley.'

The HKPO expects to easily match last year's attendance by repeating the offer of free tickets to attend the event.

Last year, they were snapped up within hours over the internet, and in a matter of days from branches of Tom Lee Music.

Those unable to make it to Happy Valley needn't worry - they will be able to catch much of the excitement on RTHK's radio and television broadcasts of the concert.

The magical atmosphere experienced at gala shows, such as Symphony Under The Stars, is difficult to put into words, but all those present at last year's concert left the grounds looking forward to a repeat experience.

'The ambience was just so different from being in a concert hall,' said South China Morning Post reader K. K. Chan in a letter to the editor last December. 'It was so relaxing and enjoyable to be sitting on the ground, on mats provided. Hong Kong should have more such outdoor, informal cultural presentations.'

By committing itself to a project of such proportions, the orchestra is delighted to be giving Hong Kong music lovers the opportunity to experience a large-scale outdoor classical concert, a tradition that is well established in other parts of the world.

America's Tanglewood in western Massachusetts presented its first series of outdoor concerts in 1937. It's now the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has played there nearly every year since the venue opened. Performances take place in the splendid setting of what is affectionately known as the Koussevitzky Music Shed, with seating for more than 5,000 people.

Germany's Waldbuhne (stage in the forest) was built in the style of a Greek amphitheatre as part of the 1936 Olympic Games complex and can seat 20,000 listeners. One of its most popular events is the end-of-season concert given annually by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.

Older still is the Hollywood Bowl in the US that opened in 1922 with a concert given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's one of the largest natural amphitheatres in the world and can seat audiences of 18,000.

Italy's ancient Arena di Verona was built in 30 AD and is now the setting for a series of spectacular operas each summer.

The conductor of last year's Symphony Under The Stars was Shanghai-born Lu Jia, who is the music director of the Arena di Verona, making him an excellent choice for the event.

Although Hong Kong won't be conjuring up such rustic or historic backcloths for the upcoming concert, this won't diminish the enchantment of the city's character.

'While last year's concert was beside the harbour,' said Mr Calnin, 'this year the orchestra will perform in the heart of Hong Kong, with the buildings circling the Happy Valley racecourse forming the dress circle for an evening of beautiful music designed for relaxed, family enjoyment.'

One difference between the long-established overseas venues and the location in Happy Valley is that permanent seating cannot be provided, so spectators are encouraged to bring their own mats and meals to enjoy the lavish show in picnic style.

This year, the conductor's baton passes to David Atherton, the HKPO's conductor laureate, for a programme in which the combination of spectacle and easy listening are certain to produce another evening to remember.

The orchestra will accompany Chinese pianist Zuo Zhang in Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, music made timeless by its association with the movie Somewhere in Time.

Other all-time favourites feature on the programme, including excerpts from Tchaikovsky's score for the ballet Nutcracker, and Rossini's overture to his opera William Tell. Faure's haunting Pavane and Copland's stirring Fanfare for the Common Man will also be heard.

The finale will feature a spectacular pyrotechnic display accompanied by Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. At the original performance of the music in 1749 in London's Green Park, an enormous wooden structure caught fire and dampened the evening's festivities.

There will be no chance of history repeating itself in the conclusion to Symphony Under The Stars. In making every effort to ensure that the fireworks will be world-class, the event's production crew went in search of the creator of the display used at the celebrations for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

The quality of sound amplification, however, is the biggest issue for the technical team. Last year's sound engineer was brought in from Australia to ensure that the audience was able to enjoy a high level of fidelity with minimal delay from the orchestra's playing on the podium.

Sets of speakers will again be erected every 10 metres or so among the audience. Even though the event is outdoors and free of charge, no compromise will be made on the standard of the acoustics in the orchestra's efforts to guarantee another first-rate evening of quality music in a magical atmosphere.