Strains of the past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am

Violinist Ho Hong-ying was born into turbulent times. It was 1966, when the Cultural Revolution was sweeping the country, and although shielded from many aspects of the regime, she recalls growing up in Guangzhou when life could be 'horrible' and 'messy'. But talent and tenacity led her through this difficult chapter in Chinese history and into one of the most prestigious music schools in the west.

'My sister told us that when she went to school she saw a body hanging in the street,' says Ho, who is the concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong (CCOHK).

Another sibling told of people shooting each other and Ho recalls seeing 'posters all over the walls with cartoon characters - the Gang of Four were drawing pictures of somebody they wanted to put down'.

A piano at a friend's home stimulated her musical curiosity, but buying one was out of the question. 'A piano cost close to US$1,000 at the time but the salary for both my parents was only about US$40 per month,' says Ho, whose father was a mineralogist and her mother a factory accountant.

She settled for a small violin instead, and it was with this instrument that Ho would make a name for herself. On Friday she will be sharing the stage with seasoned erhu player Hsin Hsiao-hung and the CCOHK in the ensemble's pre-Italian tour concert.

Spirit of Two Strings is an east-west crossover contemporary music programme that fuses the sounds of the erhu and violin, featuring works by Mao Yuan, Situ Gang and Tan Dun. Under the baton of Andrew Massey, the troupe will make its European debut on December 8 at the opening of the Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese concert season in the Italian city of L'Aquila.

Ho started taking violin lessons when she was six. Learning with a teacher who had 60 students each week, however, felt like being on a musical conveyor belt. Bad habits soon formed in her playing.

A new teacher had to be found, 'but my family didn't have any connection in music circles. I remember it took them almost a year to find one who was very well known in town - Mr Pan.'

As the concertmaster of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, Pan Zuohan could be approached only by social networking, which Ho's mother achieved through the Cantonese tradition of formal, nine-course meals.

Once accepted as a pupil, Ho enjoyed a special relationship with Pan. 'He became like a father figure for me,' she says, but lessons were shrouded in mystery. The eager student was told that everything she played was just a study.

'Viotti, Rode, Vivaldi concertos - I didn't know what they were. I could tell they weren't Chinese, but because they were western repertoire we weren't allowed to talk about them. We were supposed to think that they were only exercises,' she says.

During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music (CCM) accepted only children of peasants, workers and soldiers. Envoys would pluck potential students from the fields after basic testing, a superficial exercise that Ho describes as comical.

The revolution ended in 1976. A year later, the CCM held national auditions at which 300 aspiring violinists applied for a place, but only two were accepted. Ho was one of them. Aged 11, she went to study in Beijing where she blossomed in the freer atmosphere and was repeatedly selected to play for visiting western violinists, welcome guests in the new political climate.

Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Dorothy Delay were all impressed by Ho's talent (she is featured in From Mao to Mozart, a film that documents Stern's visit to China in 1979). It was Delay's position at New York's Juilliard School that clinched a scholarship for Ho at the prestigious institution where she arrived in 1984, aged 17.

Ho received a glowing review in The New York Times of her first major recital in 1989. She recalls how it began: 'Whoever is interested in the development of music in China should have been at Ho Hong-ying's recital.' Sponsors were impressed and life gradually became easier. After gaining her master's degree, she left the Juilliard School at the age of 23 and gained performing experience as a professional with a number of New York community orchestras, including the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players.

When she met her husband, a corporate lawyer, Ho discovered he was the son of Mao Yuan, composer of The Joy of Spring, a famous work she had learned as a girl. In this way, life seemed to come full circle, but a return to the mainland wasn't on the cards as the couple chose to live and work abroad.

Ho came to Hong Kong a decade ago when her husband secured a job here. Soon after, fate brought Ho and the founder of the CCOHK, Leanne Nicholls, together when they met in a lift - they happened to be living in the same building in Mid-Levels.

'We actually played some chamber music together and gave some concerts together before the idea came to me that she would be the ideal candidate for concertmaster of the chamber orchestra. She's not just a fine soloist with an international resume but an excellent chamber musician,' says Nicholls, the ensemble's executive and artistic director.

Ho, who is a mother of two, has no big plans for the future, 'because every day I have to check homework. When I was in my youth I had more ideals, but now I have to deal with everyday life. I do hope, however, that the orchestra will get to be known outside of Hong Kong. If the orchestra is doing well, I will be very happy.'

Spirit of Two Strings, Nov 30, Sha Tin Town Hall Auditorium, 8pm. Tickets: HK$100, HK$180 and HK$220. Inquiries: 3420 0107. CCOHK's Italian Tour from Dec 8 to 16