Chinese zodiac-inspired concert series

Chinese zodiac-inspired concert leads off series to make classical music fun for youngsters, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 3:49pm

PLAY!, the aptly named chamber music series for primary and middle-school children, got off to a great start last year with a debut concert led by pianist Alpin Hong. Titled Transformers: More Than Meets the Ear, the sell-out performance showed how classical music can be accessible and fun for youngsters.

"So many children are out there studying the piano and they don't know why," says Andrea Fessler of concert organiser Premiere Performances. "Alpin showed them that if you practise and become really good at what you do, you can play the music that you love. You can play Super Mario Brothers on the piano. It gives them a purpose to practise.

"Parents told me it was actually one of the most enjoyable concerts that they have been to, as well," Fessler adds. "There were people in the concert hall who wouldn't usually think that they were interested in classical music concerts. They come for their kids, then they discover that they really enjoy it."

This year's programme, which begins next Sunday with Carnival of the Zodiac, may raise the bar even higher. PLAY! gives a fresh take on Carnival of the Animals, as artistic director Haylie Ecker and her colleagues have adapted French composer Camille Saint-Saëns' work to match the different signs of the Chinese zodiac. It's a way to usher in the Lunar New Year.

"I love putting different concepts together to create something that hasn't been done before," Ecker says. "And I think the zodiac fits perfectly with the 12 animals that the Carnival of the Animals is about."

The Royal March of the Lion , which begins the piece, corresponds to the dragon, while the lumbering movement of the elephant matches that of the ox, and the jumping kangaroo mimics the rabbit.

There were two zodiac signs, the monkey and the ram, that didn't fit with Saint-Saëns' composition. So Ecker brought in a friend, London-based composer Dobrinka Tabakova, to write two pieces of music especially for this concert.

What's more, Tabakova composed additional tracks: a percussion-heavy intro and finale to replicate the drums and other instruments commonly used in the New Year celebrations.

Ecker and her husband, who have two children, aged four and 18 months, relocated to Hong Kong in 2010 because they wanted have "an Asian adventure".

Ecker will perform at the concert along with pianist Colleen Lee and several principal musicians of the Hong Kong Philharmonic including concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich.

And inspired by the witty verses that American poet Ogden Nash wrote for Carnival of the Animals, Premiere Performances also organised a poetry contest to encourage children to write their own. The best verses will be read aloud at the concert to add a narrative element to the music.

While they have yet to pick the winning poems, Ecker has found several enjoyable entries, including one about the Ox.

The ox is very furious and can be very serious

Some oxes are fast and never smaller than a rat

The ox is very strong, although it cannot sing you a song.

The ox is very tough so you may not want to play rough.

The ox is extremely cool, maybe even too cool for school.


Fessler got the idea to launch PLAY! in 2011, when she brought British cellist Steven Isserlis to Hong Kong for a couple of recitals. A keen promoter of music to children, he had written several musical fairy tales, in which a narrator adapts fantastical stories to introduce classical music. Isserlis played one of his works at a private concert during his visit.

The response from the audience of about 50 parents and children was "overwhelming positive", Fessler recalls. "People said it was a great idea, and there was nothing like this here for kids. That's when it planted the seed in my mind.

"One of the things that I realise is that there are a lot of kids in Hong Kong who are studying musical instruments, and to quite a high level. They are putting their 10,000 hours of practice in, but they have absolutely no joy, or love of music. I really want to change that."

Fessler, who has three young daughters, wants to make more people realise that making music can be a joyful and social experience that they can share with friends. "Even if they can't play, they can still appreciate how much of an emotional impact music can make. I would like to somehow change the way music is thought of and taught in Hong Kong."

Ecker's work with PLAY! is much different to her days spent as a member of the popular crossover string quartet Bond. But the violinist says this is something she has always wanted to do.

"One of the most rewarding things for me when I was playing on the stage, especially with Bond, was the response that we had from kids," Ecker says. "It's quite powerful and tangible. When you see their eyes [light up] you feel like you can change their world. When you introduce them to some sort of form where they can express themselves, you can tap into their inner world. It gives them a space, an outlet."

Recalling the first concert she ever attended - a solo recital by American violinist Ruggiero Ricci, when she was four - Ecker says the encounter "hit me straight in the core" and inspired her to learn the instrument. "You have an experience and that becomes a memory. It's life-changing and you always remember that moment," she says. "We want to give kids that."

PLAY! serves as an introduction to concert-going for youngsters. While not every child will be inspired to become a musician, Fessler says the goal is to nurture future generations who can appreciate music.

"Although we do expect them to sit still in their seats, it is designed to be engaging. There's more dialogue from the artists explaining what they're going to listen to, what to listen for, and what things mean. There are little anecdotes from the artists who are playing, so it's like watching a show," Fessler says.

The programme is created to help children open their minds, and they have produced a booklet recommending music-related activities and apps. At upcoming concerts, including a performance by string quartet Brooklyn Rider on April 19, musicians will introduce fun facts about their instruments and the featured works.

Pictures at an Exhibition, which features pianist Freddy Kempf, follows an art course which is held in collaboration with Kids Gallery. Drawings by participating children, which express their feelings about music, will be projected during the concert on May 26.

Performances have also been shortened to about an hour, so as not to over run a child's attention span. The chamber music and solo recitals also work to their advantage. It is much more intimate than a big orchestral concert, and allows the children to hear the individual instruments.

The choice of venue is similarly important, Fessler says. Instead of City Hall or the Cultural Centre, which seat thousands, they generally opt for smaller venues such as the 380-seat concert hall in the Academy for the Performing Arts.

"If the children are way at the back of an auditorium in row ZZ, and the musicians are tiny little specks on stage, they're not going to feel a personal connection with the artist. It's really important to capture get their interest and make them engaged," Fessler explains.

"If you go to a concert and see these musicians doing the best they possibly can, it's contagious. You can't help but be moved by it," Ecker says. "Children are then experiencing [classical music] the way that they should. It's really thrilling and moving for them. This way, it doesn't teach them a love for music per se, it just exposes them to people who have a love of music."

Fessler adds: "If we can inspire them and develop a love of concert going, then people don't have to talk about the future of classical music."

Ecker agrees. If children are taught to love classical music, the future of the art form will take care of itself. "It just will be."

The Carnival of the Zodiac, Jan 20, 3pm, Hong Kong Jockey Club Amphitheatre, Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai, HK$180-HK$400 from HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 9545 6851