Hall of fame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


This City Hall will bring light and pleasure to the people of Hong Kong, to the enrichment of their lives and the lives of their children.' With these words, Sir Robert Black, then governor of Hong Kong, raised the curtain on Hong Kong's first world-class concert hall half a century ago on March 2, 1962.

It wasn't the first City Hall in Hong Kong's history, but it was the first opened to society at large. Its predecessor, inaugurated in 1869, was operated by an elite group of businessmen. It was torn down in 1933 to make way for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters and the government promised to provide a site for a new hall. With the outbreak of war, however, people had other things to worry about.

'But a few musicians from the Sino-British Orchestra remembered,' says Darwin Chen Tat-man, the first Chinese manager of City Hall. 'They kept writing to the South China Morning Post urging the government to honour its promise and, in 1953, the government agreed to build a new hall.'

Plans for the venue soon moved beyond a concert hall, growing into a compact multiple-use cluster of cultural and civic facilities on the reclaimed waterfront, which would also include Queen's Pier (1954) and the Star Ferry Pier (1957). Apart from a 1,500-seat concert hall and a 500-seat theatre, the venue also housed a museum, gallery, library, ballroom, restaurant, conference rooms and even a marriage registry.

But there was strong opposition inside the government to the HK$20 million project; the financial secretary argued that the community was not ready for this 'white elephant'. But City Hall was a success from the outset.

It all began with a visit by the renowned London Philharmonic Orchestra, which opened the concert hall with five performances. Sir Malcolm Sargent, its conductor, was instantly impressed with the hall's acoustics. 'Never let bad orchestras play here. The badness of their playing would be shown up so mercilessly that you would all walk out,' he told the audience after the first concert on March 4, 1962 - 50 years ago today.

Sargent's praise was obviously heard by his peers throughout the world and star performers started dropping by the city, which was then better known for Suzie Wong than classical music.

In the decades before the opening of the Cultural Centre in 1989, City Hall played host to debut local performances by the likes of violinists Yehudi Menuhin (1962), Henryk Szeryng (1965), Alfredo Campoli (1966), Isaac Stern (1967), Ida Handael (1973) and Itzhak Perlman (1977); pianists Arthur Rubenstein, (1964), Claudio Arrau (1965), Shura Cherkassky (1974) and Alicia de Larrocha (1975); cellists Paul Tortelier (1974), Yo-Yo Ma (1977), Mischa Maisky (1978) and Mstislav Rostropovich (1983); plus sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1973) and Victoria de los Angeles (1977), just to name a few.

But nothing illustrates the impact of City Hall better than the number of visits by full symphony orchestras. Before 1962, Hong Kong had only played host to two: the Los Angeles and Vienna Philharmonics, which performed at a basketball court and a theatre, respectively. After the opening of City Hall, orchestras started flooding in.

The London Symphony Orchestra visited three times from 1964 to 1971. Japan's flagship NHK Symphony Orchestra also flew in, as did the Cincinnati Symphony and the Japan Philharmonic. The trend accelerated with the creation of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1973, which continues to bring in top-notch orchestras and artists every year.

'The demand was huge from day one,' Chen recalls. 'But our biggest concern was concert etiquette of the local audience. People were used to smoking and walking around during Cantonese operas and movies. It was City Hall that nurtured proper etiquette - such as not smoking or arriving late - among the audience.'

But the situation didn't change overnight. Pianist Nancy Loo recalls her debut performance in the new City Hall as a teenager one Sunday afternoon. 'It was a full house, but I suspect many people were just there for a relaxing afternoon, munching their snacks and enjoying the free air conditioning,' she says.

These 'Sunday Popular Concerts' were aimed at introducing the concert hall experience to the public and entry was just HK$1. For many people - performers and audience members - City Hall gave them their first exposure to the fine arts in a professional setting.

City Hall provided a platform for performances of practically every genre of music. Full Cantonese operas, for example, were staged regularly, as were dramas and variety shows. Pop singer Pat Boone (1964) and jazz giant Duke Ellington (1972) also made their mark at the concert hall.

The theatre became a haven for film lovers, particularly in the early years when non-mainstream commercial movies, including many non-English titles, were screened. The 1962 opener was a three-hour film of the Richard Strauss opera Rosenkavalier, for example. The practice contributed to the founding of what is now the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which was launched in 1977 at City Hall.

But perhaps City Hall's most important contribution was its role in nurturing local artists and groups. 'Without City Hall, the Allegro Singers would not have come into existence,' says Barbara Fei Ming-yee, a Paris-trained soprano who founded the choral group in 1964.

The same could be said of veteran opera director Lo King-man, who in 1966 produced the first full version of Madama Butterfly in City Hall, with Italian-trained soprano Ella Kiang in the title role. And in 1969, about 80 youngsters belonging to the Hong Kong Children's Choir, including current Hong Kong Sinfonietta music director Yip Wing-sie, sang their first note.

During the 1970s City Hall was a springboard for launching professional ensembles and institutions. The venue also helped inaugurate the Hong Kong Philharmonic (1974), the Pan-Asia Orchestra (1976), the Asian Arts Festival (1976), the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (1977), Hong Kong Repertory (1977), and Hong Kong Ballet (1979).

Outside the world of arts, City Hall became an important venue for political events. Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1975 and 1986, and the inauguration ceremonies of all governors from David Trench (1964) to David Wilson (1987) were held there.

The mainland was experiencing great turbulence in the early years of City Hall, and the venue hosted a group of top Chinese musicians, including pianist Liu Shikun and violinist Yu Lina, just a few months after it opened. Local leftist groups also staged rallies there during the Cultural Revolution.

In the 1980s, the venue's role as the city's sole concert hall ended with the opening of competing venues, first in Tsuen Wan, then Sha Tin, Tuen Mun and, in 1989, Tsim Sha Tsui with the Cultural Centre. It was also overshadowed by large venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Stadium and the Coliseum in Hung Hom. Acoustically, however, it remains unchallenged.

With the demolition of Queen's Pier and the Star Ferry Pier in 2007, plus the ongoing construction of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, City Hall has lost the landscape it was born into. Inside it has changed too - a fire in 2004 closed the concert hall for three months and resulted in the replacement of the original woodwork.

Yip of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, City Hall's venue partner since 2009, says all that is needed is an upgrade for the 21st century. 'Without people, a venue is dead, so we need artists and an audience to give the hall an identity. We also need good backstage facilities so that chorus members don't have to warm up in the street like they did at our last concert.'

For information about the programme celebrating City Hall's 50th anniversary, go to www.cityhall.gov.hk/50/en/s23.php