Asian Youth Orchestra throws dose of reality to solo music stardom

Many musicians dream of solo stardom, but a youth orchestra wants to show that there is strength in numbers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 9:51am

When 15-year-old Harry Chiu Chin-pong, who plays the French horn, first performed with the Hong Kong-based Asian Youth Orchestra last year, he was just another aspiring young musician.

One year later, Harry is a winner of the under-18 category of the 2013 Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales, one of the world's toughest competitions for soloists.

"I love playing solo," Harry says. "In an orchestra, you always need to listen to others and match their playing. But as a soloist, I own the stage."

Harry, who is still part of the Asian Youth Orchestra, is among a growing number of young musicians who have ambitions to become soloists - a trend that Richard Pontzious, the orchestra's artistic director and conductor, believes will deter talented players from joining youth orchestras.

In an orchestra, you always need to listen to others ... But as a soloist, I own the stage
Harry Chiu, french horn player

Throughout its 23-year history, the orchestra has encountered problems with funding, sponsorship, performance venues and travelling. But it has never been threatened by a drop in intake, and he's worried that might happen. At present, it has more than 90 players coming from Hong Kong, the mainland, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others.

Many of the musicians who auditioned recently have set their sights on solo stardom, even though the chances of this materialising are very low, Pontzious says.

So what is the appeal of a solo career? Pontzious remembers that several years ago, during training, a young violinist went up to her violin coach and expressed a strong desire to be a solo star like Yo-Yo Ma or Jian Wang, the latter of whom used to be the coach's student.

The young violinist said she wanted to fly first-class, have someone carry her instrument and not have to practise any more. This quickly became a joke among the orchestra's members, but it also raised some serious concerns.

"These kids and their parents think that magic hits you and then you are a star, just like that," Pontzious says, snapping his fingers. "That really doesn't happen."

What does happen, when playing for a quality orchestra, is that the young musicians learn to become disciplined artists, says Pontzious. He believes that discipline is the key to success for musicians, but most young players don't have this attribute when they start out.

The Asian Youth Orchestra held its inaugural concerts in 1990 and has been known for its high-quality performances and extremely competitive auditions.

Every year, the committee selects about 100 talented youngsters, from among tens of thousands across East and Southeast Asia, to take part in a six-week training programme each summer, which includes a number of public performances. But this year, the number of hopefuls fell short of expectations.

The programme includes an international concert tour, and travelling with people from different backgrounds is a way for musicians to find out more about themselves, says Pontzious. They perform in nine Asian cities in three weeks.

Pontzious hopes the experience of travelling with almost 100 other musicians will show how tough a touring musician's life can be.

Not all its members go on to play in orchestras full time. Andy Hsu, 20, a violinist from Taipei, has been part of the orchestra since last year, but in the off-seasons works as a freelance musician for celebrities, earning as much as HK$50,000 a month.

"Not everyone can be a soloist, but not everyone wants to be a soloist either," Hsu says. "I want freedom."

Do it for art, not fame

Cellist Steven Isserlis likes flying solo and has never joined a full orchestra, preferring to be a chamber musician for most of his career. Although he has flourished in this career choice, he is urging young musicians not to completely shun ensembles to seek fame as a soloist.

The 54-year-old, this year's guest soloist performing with the Asian Youth Orchestra, laments the story of how, when the orchestra went to Japan, not a single cellist showed up to audition.

According to Richard Pontzious, who founded the Hong Kong-based orchestra in 1987, the reason for the absence was that many performers wanted to be soloists.

But Isserlis says the choice between playing in a group and striking out on one's own should not be the defining factor. The ultimate goal, he says, should be playing for the sake of art - not fame.

With the boom in classical music and orchestras across Asia, especially on the mainland in recent decades, competition has been fierce.

Isserlis says he has seen many musicians fail to make it as soloists and then, embittered, joined orchestras just to make a living.

"Some [young professionals] are going to [end up bitter], unfortunately," he says. "But that's why loving music is so important. You can't just do it for the success; you must do it for the sake of music."

Keira Lu Huang

Principal conductor James Judd leads the orchestra on August 23 in a programme that will include Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to Der Freischütz , Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor (with cello virtuoso Steven Isserlis as soloist) and Sibelius' Symphony No2. Richard Pontzious will take up the baton on August 24 for a programme features Brahms' Symphony No3 in F, Haydn's Cello Concerto in C (with Isserlis) and Beethoven's Symphony No5 in C minor. Both shows at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8pm. HK$350, HK$250, HK$180 and HK$100 from Urbtix. Inquiries: 2866 1623 or 2734 9009