Lack of support for the arts in Hong Kong hits sour note

Richard Pontzious says city's cultural life can become great with proper funding and facilities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 4:32am

I may have one of the best jobs in town. Not financially rewarding, I hasten to say, but on a professional level, it doesn't get much better.

My task is to look for talent. The search is on - has been for 23 years - for the most promising young musicians I can find. And when found, I reward 100 of them with the opportunity to study and perform for a summer with the Asian Youth Orchestra, each one of them on a full scholarship package underwritten by the orchestra's generous sponsors and friends.

The young people who win these scholarships, some as young as 15, most not older than 27, are for the most part passionate about music.

And why not? Across the globe our Asian Youth Orchestra alumni are holding down positions in orchestras big and small. Indeed, just last week, word came that our lead violist from the 2001 and 2002 summers had won the principal viola chair with the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra in Munich, one of the world's greatest orchestras.

After 26 years in Hong Kong, I can say with some authority that the depth of talent here - all hype aside - is truly amazing.

Do we care? I know I do. Our orchestra sponsors certainly do. So what's missing in the equation? I dare say it's the determination to make it all great.

We build an Academy for Performing Arts and underfund and understaff it. We build a Cultural Centre on the edge of one of the world's most dramatic harbours and there isn't a window in the building, to say nothing of balcony seating that's so cramped there's a risk of leg circulation being cut off for any concertgoer over 142cm.

For the sake of our extraordinary talent (and the quality of life of every Hong Kong resident), isn't it time to loosen the government purse strings even a little bit, given the riches in its coffers?

Our hope lies in what might come of the West Kowloon Cultural District. But how our ears sting when we hear about cost overruns (guaranteed at the get-go), threats of cutbacks, delays, further delays, the notion of shopping malls replacing arts venues.

Are we so addicted to profit and shopping that we cannot do without a new mall running the length of West Kowloon?

Some years ago, on the occasion of the opening of our orchestra's rehearsal camp, I mentioned to then chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen that I hoped to conduct an Asian Youth Orchestra concert in the new concert hall of the West Kowloon project. Tang laughed and guaranteed "no problem". That was two years ago.

So, enough penny-pinching. Enough shopping malls. Come on Hong Kong. We owe it to the talent around us. Let's make it great!

Richard Pontzious is founder, artistic director and conductor of the Asian Youth Orchestra