Sinfonietta musical director performs creative and financial balancing act

Hong Kong Sinfonietta music director Yip Wing-sie tells Sam Olluver how she juggles business and creativity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:21am

When Yip Wing-sie took to the podium to open the Hong Kong Sinfonietta's 2013-14 season, it was the 12th time she had lifted the wraps on a new package of classical programmes since the start of her association with the ensemble.

But getting to that annual point of delivery is a laborious process for the orchestra's music director, who has to combine logistics, finance and artistic judgment.

Programme planning is handled in different ways in different institutions. For an organisation the size of the sinfonietta, Yip is the initial decision maker, although she does carry out some preliminary consultation.

"I ask the players if there are any particular pieces they would like to perform," she says. "I also consult our concertmaster as to what he thinks our orchestra could benefit from doing."

When Yip joined the orchestra, she had to present 60 concerts each season. Today, it's more than 100. She's employed the same formula for a number of years: the concerts are divided under the headings of "Learn" (educational), "Relax" (easy listening) and "Appreciate" (mainstream classical programmes).

It seems that it's never too early to start on that learning curve. This season, for example, will see no fewer than 11 performances of Good Music for Babies in the City Hall Theatre, a testament to its success in previous years.

The orchestra was asked to try out the idea in 2007 by the organisers of the annual La Folle Journée festival held in Japan, an event the orchestra has attended regularly ever since. On that occasion, there was a staggering total of 5,000 babes-in-arms and their parents in the audience.

"I think the reason it's been successful here is because Hong Kong parents are very keen on providing the best for their kids," Yip says. "I think we knew from day one that it was going to be more educational for the parents, but it's the only musical event where they can bring the baby along."

At the more mature end of the season's line-up is a cycle of performances of Beethoven's five piano concertos. For all concerts, the solo artist has to be confirmed first. Although the Beethoven works are staple fare for most soloists, they are reluctant to perform more than a certain number of concertos during the year. Yip also has preferences for pairing individual players with specific works.

After mixing and matching artists, works, dates and venues, all is usually resolved, until a manager phones to say the artist is no longer available. Then part of the process has to be painstakingly revisited.

The orchestra was delighted when Benjamin Grosvenor was booked to play with them. The young British pianist gave a memorable performance of Benjamin Britten's Piano Concerto (Op. 13) at the 2011 BBC Proms.

Yip wanted to recreate the experience for a Hong Kong audience, in the wake of this year's centenary of the composer's birth.

But the work fell outside Grosvenor's plans for next February, and it took some persuading on Yip's part before he finally agreed to play.

She also has to make sure that repertoires aren't duplicated by other orchestras, either visiting or resident: "We usually get together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; it's sensible to do that. We've been doing it for a number of years now. We're very good friends."

This season, the sense of collaboration extends to performances for the Le French May festival, the International Arts Carnival and, for the first time, the local choral organisation SingFest, who will provide the choir for Haydn's The Creation under the baton of veteran conductor Helmuth Rilling.

Two series of events that wander from the beaten track are being repeated: regular lunchtime chamber recitals, initiated and performed by the orchestra's players, in the foyer of City Hall; and a two-week residency at ArtisTree.

The latter comprises recitals, orchestral classics, Hong Kong Epilogue by local composer Aenon Loo, and performances by Classical Jam, a New York-based ensemble founded by cellist Wendy Law, who is the sinfonietta's artist associate this season. Unusually, admission is free; even more unusually, the venue is also provided free to the orchestra, as part of Swire Island East's contribution to arts within the community.

"Booking venues is the most difficult task of the planning process," Yip says.

As a venue partner with City Hall, the sinfonietta enjoys a degree of priority, "but we can't have all our concerts there because that would exceed the number of days we are allowed to book".

When Yip joined the Sinfonietta in 2002, government funding came via the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and stood at HK$12 million annually; now the responsibility of the Home Affairs Bureau, this season's subvention stands at HK$22 million.

But the details of the increase reveal that much of it was intended to meet the rising cost of hiring the facilities at City Hall. "Every time there was an increase," Yip says, "it wasn't for an artistic reason - disappointingly.

"Sometimes I don't know where we will go," she says. "We've been growing quite rapidly and we think we still have room to expand."

All requests for recurrent extra funding from the government to achieve this development, however, have fallen on deaf ears. "The reaction was, we're happy with the way that you are developing, but don't grow too fast," says Yip.

All this hits the morale and pockets of loyal members of the orchestra, who were hoping for a rosier future. Better players turn to alternative jobs, and expectations of performances of larger-scale works, such as this season's selection of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky symphonies, are undermined.

"It's really unfortunate. Sometimes if you stop growing, it's very easy for you to go the other way," she says.

As in other areas of life under government sway, crumbs of comfort come in the form of one-off grants. The latest was a pot of contestable funding for which the city's flagship arts companies were able to bid.

The sinfonietta was successful, and Yip and her team are now in the process of responding to the government's criterion of nurturing young talent by establishing positions for eight trainee players, plus a number of administrative posts and an opening for an assistant conductor (as yet unfilled). The funding lasts for 18 months.

The orchestra's banner title for the new season is "Opening Doors". Keeping them open seems to be the hard part.