Virtuoso thrives on surprises

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

Ho Hong-ying, concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, became famous even before she knew it. After arriving at the Juilliard School in New York as the first mainland Chinese violin student, she met people who remembered her from the celebrated documentary From Mao to Mozart. Ho barely remembered her movie debut.

The film recorded how the American violinist Isaac Stern accepted an invitation to tour the mainland in 1979 and teach talented string players like Ms Ho, following the government's decision to reopen its doors to western ideas after the Cultural Revolution. This episode in her life took place when Ms Ho was 12, but she didn't fully understand the significance of it at the time.

'I remember writing in my diary that my teacher told me I was going to play for somebody very important from America, a real authority in violin music and I should take this opportunity very seriously,' she said.

Although she grew up with the sounds of Chinese music all around her, Ho never learned how to play a Chinese instrument, going straight on to the violin at the age of six instead. Preparing for her performance with Hsin Hsiao-hung of Situ Gang's Double Concerto for erhu and violin has been an interesting experience.

'I thought I was familiar with all the sounds of Chinese music until I played this work. I was surprised how hard it was to blend the sound of the erhu with the violin, especially in the phrasing,' said Ho. 'Usually, western music is played in very long lines but when Hsiao-hung performs, she plays in very small units and in a very elastic way, so I have to follow that style.'

Ho has lived in Hong Kong for the past 12 years and it's the unusual programming of concerts such as Spirit of Two Strings that explains why she has remained in the concertmaster's chair since the CCOHK was founded in 1999.

'I think the programming of this orchestra is unique,' she said. 'It has very good vision, sometimes in a surprising way. I think musicians and artists in general like surprises; they don't enjoy things that are very cliched.'