Cellist Trey Lee is on a mission to introduce overseas artists to the city

An early musical encounter changed cellist Trey Lee's life. Now he wants young players to be inspired and motivated by the same type of experience, writes Sam Olluver

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 11:02am

Hong Kong-born cellist Trey Lee Chui-yee remembers his eureka moment very clearly: it happened during his studies in the US. Lee attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, then took a degree in economics at Harvard University, before making a return to music via a master's degree from the Boston New England Conservatory.

While at Harvard, he decided to lock away all his musical aspirations and pursue a career in management consultancy. As a final fling before loosening his bow and packing his resin away, Lee decided to participate in the Blossom Music Festival, in Cleveland.

I thought, this is my last hurrah before I quit cello and never touch the thing again

"I thought, this is my last hurrah before I quit cello and never touch the thing again," the Berlin-based artist recalls.

During the course of that jamboree, he bounced from concerts to workshops to master classes, before taking part in a collaborative performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, directed by the celebrated American conductor Leonard Slatkin.

Lee was invited to play alongside the principal cellist of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra before an audience of 5,000 people. It tripped an adrenaline switch that eventually put him back on track as a classical musician.

Cut to Hong Kong, and Lee's current enterprise, the Musicus Society: established in 2010 with a mission to introduce overseas artists to the city, it has already presented performances by the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra from Finland and London's Philharmonia.

The society has also enabled Lee to recreate the profound impact that his performance with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra made on him all those years ago." So many people here have asked me how you motivate and inspire a child," he says. "Well, what got me really over the edge was that experience. So, I wanted to try it here in Hong Kong. For students to have that kind of experience is something money can't buy."

In October last year, the society arranged a visit by the Munich Chamber Orchestra. They gave several performances, featuring Lee as the soloist in the première of Bright Sheng's cello concerto, The Blazing Mirage.

But Lee wanted a more direct interaction between the visitors and the local musical community, so he arranged for the orchestra to collaborate with students at the Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School.

"I believe this was the first time in Hong Kong that a group had worked a project similar to the experience I had with the Cleveland Orchestra," Lee says. "The professionals worked with a local school for a weekend and put on a concert together. The kids sat on stage with them, and their chief conductor, Alexander Liebreich, directed."

Students and professionals impressed each other in equal measure, and the visitors were astounded by the non-specialist school's commitment to music, and the responsiveness of the students. A seed had been sown.

While the society's original focus of presenting visiting orchestras continues, that educational strand is being given much more legroom in Musicus Fest, a new initiative that has events stretching from September to early December.

Finland's Tapiola Sinfonietta, for example, will take over from where the Munich Chamber Orchestra left off last year, coaching local students and performing part of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony alongside them at a City Hall concert to be held on December 4. That will be the last of three concerts of chamber and orchestral music featuring local and overseas artists.

There are also several new educational initiatives. Lee himself, plus local Chinese sheng (a mouth-blown reed instrument) artist Loo Sze-wang and pianists Colleen Lee and Rachel Cheung, visited schools in September and October.

They gave performances, and stimulated discussions on topics such as the challenges of life as an international artist, everyday issues of being a musician, and the demands of working in arts management. Applications for the visits far exceeded supply.

"When we spoke with government education officials and specialists, asking them if schools would be interested, they said it could be a lukewarm response," Lee recalls. "And then we had this crazy response."

The subject of arts management is already generating a great deal of thought locally, with the West Kowloon Cultural District project focusing awareness on the infrastructure needed for such a huge undertaking.

Lee and his team have broadened their sights even further as a result and initiated a number of workshops with specialists from the media, arts education and arts management for students interested in a career behind the scenes.

With no benchmark for such a pioneering event, Lee's team aimed to attract 10 applicants. In the event, the number more than doubled that target.

Additionally, new works have been commissioned from two young local composers, Kenny Lam and Jeff Leung. Before getting an airing at the festival's final concert, the premières will take place on location at two sites with significant historical associations: Leung's string quartet, 66 Leighton Road, at the Po Leung Kuk Museum in Happy Valley, and Reanimate, Lam's piano trio, at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty, formerly the site of Victoria Barracks.

The performers will comprise mostly visiting artists, with a string quartet drawn from the Tapiola Sinfonietta's principal players, and violinist Latica Honda-Rosenberg, cellist Jens Peter Maintz and pianist Colleen Lee making up the piano trio.

Lee repeats his regret that most overseas artists travel so far to get here and then slip away without any significant interaction with the local musicians and the city's culture, the reason why he is taking a step back from the commissioned pieces.

"I will play in neither," he says. "I wanted Western artists to be involved because I want to just get more interaction, to introduce the overseas artists to Hong Kong history.

It's something people are always complaining about: we don't have enough heritage. This is one way to correct that perception."