Perseverance pays off for couple who founded the Chopin Society of Hong Kong
Chopin Society brings talented classical music performers to Hong Kong
When Andrew Freris and his wife Anabella Levin-Freris bought a flat in London's Eaton Square in 1994, the Hong Kong-based couple discovered that Polish composer Frédéric Chopin had performed in their new apartment in 1848. Such salon recitals were common in Chopin's time, when music-making for a closed circle of well-heeled aficionados was a popular pursuit.
This piqued their imagination, and when they returned to their home in Hong Kong, the couple wondered if they could recreate the practice of salon performances here.
Initially, it seemed like a daunting task. "We needed three things: a grand piano, a competent pianist, and a great big living room that would accommodate anything between 50 to 100 people," Andrew recalls.
That last requirement alone would have dampened the enthusiasm of most Hongkongers. But they struck it lucky, as their friend Teresa Li-lai was able to supply all three.
The inaugural recital was a success, and this spurred them to repeat the event every other month. In 1995, the Chopin Society of Hong Kong was born.
The society has gone from strength to strength: almost a couple of decades later, it not only hosts recitals, but organises the triennial Hong Kong International Piano Competition and the annual Joy of Music Festival, which has its seventh edition next week.
Serendipity has played a big role in the Chopin Society's success. Andrew, a wealth management investment adviser, and Anabella, a doctor from Uruguay, are avid concert-goers who formed the society because of their love of music. But when the society started to grow, the couple, who married in London in 1981, decided to try and capitalise on its potential, and bring the music to a wider audience.
With increasing numbers wanting to attend their free piano soirées, they officially registered the society and searched for a bigger venue. Being friends of the Kadoorie family, owners of the Peninsula Hotel Group, helped open the doors, literally, to the Salisbury Room of the Peninsula. Further support came from Tom Lee Music, which stepped in to provide the pianos.
The demand for attendance continued to grow, and the couple decided to open the piano recitals to the public through ticket sales. "The next stage was to start to get some money," Andrew says. "Teresa Li-lai was very good in helping us out financially, so were the Kadoories. They are now the major backers of the society."
The next question they asked themselves was which performers would people pay to hear, other than established, expensive, and elusive big-name artists? The solution was to book recent winners of major international competitions.
The debut show consisted of the first-prize winners in the piano, violin and cello classes of the 1997 Tchaikovsky International Competition.
The Winners Series, which is part of the Joy of Music Festival, has subsequently brought more than 30 first-prize winners to perform here.
"We are very picky," Andrew says, noting they only deal with prestigious competitions, like the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition (Belgium), the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition (Japan), and the Concours Géza Anda Competition (Switzerland).
"We really want to pick the best," he says, pointing out that Boris Giltburg, this year's winner of the piano class in the Queen Elisabeth, will perform as part of their upcoming programme.
The society wanted a gold-plated name on the masthead from the start. So when the Frerises noticed, in 1995, that Vladimir Ashkenazy, a noted pianist and conductor, was performing in Hong Kong, they invited him to lunch and asked him to become a patron. He subsequently became the honorary president.
"He was unbelievably welcoming," Anabella says. "He tells everybody he never thought we would make anything [of our plans] and that's why he said yes."
The same serendipity embraced the society's next development, which was the establishment of Hong Kong's own international piano competition, a triennial event first held in 2005. Ashkenazy agreed to be chairman of the jury, again sceptical that it would ever get off the ground.
"He said, 'I didn't think in a million years you would run a competition, so why turn you down?'" Andrew recalls.
There are hundreds of piano competitions worldwide, so the Hong Kong event needed a unique selling point. Ashkenazy's name provided that, and the provision of a practice piano for each competitor's exclusive use throughout the competition added appeal.
The third selling point, Freris says, "was to get a jury to end all juries. When you look at all the other competitions, the juries are packed with fantastic teachers, but there are very few, if any, performers. So, I said, we're going to fill ours with fantastic players."
An additional twist was that the jurors would also give showcase performances as part of the competition's programme. "This was unique to our competition, although it has been progressively imitated," says 68-year-old Andrew.
To keep the name of the Society alive between each competition, they run the Joy of Music Festival. This brings together past prizewinners, members of the jury, and other artists, both in performance and in master classes. This year's festival runs from October 14 to 20.
Despite its success, the public profile of the Chopin Society remains relatively low, and tickets sales are modest. Andrew says that, although it has adequate finance to secure artists, it is compromised by insufficient funds for promotion.
"Not having enough money for publicity is the bane of our life," he says. "Last year we hired a professional PR company, and it was an unmitigated disaster. We sold fewer tickets than we ever did before. We have to do something about it.
"I don't know if it's a matter of spending a lot of money on a Rolls-Royce of a PR firm, or simply getting someone who really knows what they are doing," he says.
But the couple say they are determined to persevere, and hope the two events are firmly etched on Hong Kong's cultural calendar.