Exiting APA music head leaves a formidable legacy

After a decade at the helm of the APA's department of music, Benedict Cruft is returning to London. Sam Olluver examines the violin master's legacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 9:12am

Benedict Cruft first visited Hong Kong in 1971 as a young violinist on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra. Little did he know that he would eventually go on to mark a milestone of his career by becoming as the dean of music at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA). After all, back then, the academy didn't exist.

Now, after a decade running the academy's music department, Cruft is stepping down to return to his London roots. There's a sense of him having come full circle: the last concert he presided over included a performance of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, which was also on the programme of his first Hong Kong concert more than 40 years ago. "It was a slightly self-indulgent bit of programming of mine," the 64-year-old says with a grin.

The standard of incoming student as a result is higher than it was a decade ago
Benedict Cruft

Although Cruft is leaving "the impact of his work will be felt for generations to come", says Professor Adrian Walter, the APA's director.

"Ben's contribution to the cultural life of Hong Kong has been extraordinary, both in terms of its quality and breadth. The academy has become a richer artistic and learning community as a result of the contribution he has made."

Cruft says being able to raise the profile of early music has been one of his most satisfying achievements. "When I came for my interview, I was told the fact that I'd played the baroque violin was one of the reasons they wanted me. So, naturally enough, I've expanded on that."

He cites the performances of early operas his department has staged, including Handel's Xerxes, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, all of which benefited from his acquisition of period instruments for the academy. These include a set of baroque gut-string instruments, plus pairs of baroque flutes, oboes and bassoons.

Cruft explains how these instruments also facilitated an authentic performance of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 two years ago: "It was probably the first performance in Hong Kong by Hong Kong players on the correct period instruments," he says.

That a number of alumni are now taking their enthusiasm for early music into the wider community is an additional satisfaction for him.

None of this has come at the expense of modern fare. Cruft believes the academy's 2012 staging of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first performance of the work in the city by a Hong Kong group, adding that, "this year's production of Leos Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen was, I think, the first Hong Kong production of any Janacek opera."

How the violinist landed in this city can be traced back to a professional link between Ling Tung (the Hong Kong Philharmonic's music director from 1979 to 1981) and the Philharmonia in London, which Cruft had joined by then, that helped him secure the post of associate concertmaster of the Philharmonic from 1980-84.

Between 1987 and 1991, he spent time in Thailand and Vietnam at the behest of the Japanese conductor Yoshikazu Fukumura, with whom he had worked during his four-year stint in Hong Kong.

A project on the mainland coincided with the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. "I thought the whole thing was going to be cancelled," he recalls. "But I got there and spent a fantastic five weeks with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra."

During his time with the London Symphony Orchestra, Cruft had worked closely with Anthony Camden, the orchestra's principal oboist; Camden went on to become the APA's third dean of music.

In 1995, Camden invited Cruft to spend several months teaching violin and coaching ensembles at the academy on an interim basis, before the incumbent for the post of head of strings could take the reins.

Cruft's pedigree was already known when the vacancy for a new dean of music to replace Camden arose in 2003, and he was invited to apply.

When offered the job, Cruft expressed a slight reservation: "I said, 'Why? I'm not an administrator, I'm a fiddle player.'" But it was his experience and expertise as a violinist, especially on baroque violin, that was the selling point.

Other highlights of Cruft's tenure have been the inclusion of chamber music as a core component of the performance course, and the collaborative concerts involving academy students and the Philharmonic's professionals, in concerts conducted by Edo de Waart.

The demanding programmes included John Adams' Harmonielehre, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Richard Strauss' An Alpine Symphony and Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

Setting the work of the academy into the wider context of Hong Kong, Cruft observes how the paucity of full-time playing opportunities in ensembles has obliged many graduates to become almost exclusively teachers. But they have done this with great success.

"The thing that has really registered for me over the past 10 years is that the incoming standard of student as a result is higher than it was a decade ago," Cruft says.

While acknowledging that a good living can be earned from private teaching, he regrets the lack of opportunities for graduates to perform, a problem linked with the dearth of good venues.

"When I came to this job 10 years ago, I wondered, 'Why there are so few good halls that are small, with fine acoustics designed for music and that are available for local musicians?'" he says.

"A multipurpose hall is never going to be suitable for a concert hall," he adds. "I would love to see a 400-seater hall built that is available for people to use on a regular basis. It could be hired at a subsidised rate that would enable young performers to put on concerts themselves. They could hire it for a fee that would allow them to make a profit."

In the US, he says, there's a culture of people memorialising themselves by paying for such halls to be built. "Nobody in Hong Kong seems to do that," he says.