Arts & ENTERTAINMENT
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Classical music

For Macau-born conductor Lio Kuok-man, music is the air he breathes

33-year-old talks about what inspired him, which music he listens to, why he's stopped dressing only in black, and how cooking and conducting compare

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 9:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2015, 9:30pm

Lio Kuok-man, 33, was appointed assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2014. He appears regularly in Hong Kong, where he trained at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

48HOURS: What would life be without music?

LIO KUOK-MAN: It would be a mistake. That's from Nietzsche. And I think so too. Music is a very important part of our life. Let's not talk about pop, classical, or Chinese music — it doesn't matter. Music itself is so important; can you imagine life without it? There's no way. Music to me is air.

What inspired your love for conducting?

It has been my dream since I was four. My mother brought me to my first concert and I was mesmerised by this long-haired conductor waving his "chopstick". Afterwards, I told my mum that's what I wanted to be. The concert [by the then Macau Orchestra] left a lasting impression on me and I can still remember it was a Brahms symphony that they played. I started learning the piano shortly after and I came to Hong Kong to study at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts when I was 16. But it wasn't until after I finished my master's degree in New York that I finally got to fulfil my dream in conducting [at the Curtis Institute and the New England Conservatory of Music].

Do you prefer conducting with or without the baton?

It's a very personal choice, actually. Without the baton I feel freer with my hands but with it it's clearer because it's basically an extension of your arm, so people can see it better. It depends on the music and how I can serve the musicians. I go sometimes with and sometimes without depending on the context.

What would happen if I stole your score?

With the score, it's not a sense of being secure because I already know the music by heart. But with the score sometimes I can find something unexpected during a concert and I can take another route. It's like you're driving and reading a map and you realise you can drive this route. If you don't read the map, you'll just drive the same way.

Now that you're wearing a red polo, I guess your fixation on wearing only black has passed?

Yes, I used to wear black all the time and because I travel so much, it's easier. I have 12 of the same black T-shirts and I bring at least six of them, so for two weeks I'm good, you know, washing and rewearing them. But this summer right before touring with the Philadelphia Orchestra to Europe I opened my closet and I was like [face palm] this is all black. I talked to our music director Yannick [Nezet-Seguin] — he has a very good sense of fashion — and we decided to go shopping. So I went shopping with my boss, tried clothes on, and bought a lot of colourful shirts. Now I like shopping.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I listen to all kinds of music, including pop. My favourite Canto-pop singer? [Eason] Chan Yik-shun. I like his songs.

Which has been your most memorable performance?

It's hard to nail down one in particular because each performance is an unforgettable experience. But one of the more recent ones was in October when I had my first-ever show with the Philadelphia Orchestra, for which I've been the assistant conductor since September.

What do you enjoy doing outside music?

I love to cook. When I first moved to America, it was like: I don't want to eat burgers every single day and gain a lot of weight. So I decided to learn how to cook, both Chinese and [Western] cuisines. It started my passion for food. I guess being a chef is equivalent to being a conductor. For cooking, it's about timing and the sense of balance. Music is the same thing — you want to hear the strings, the brass — and also creativity. They're very similar and for that reason, I'm very serious about cooking. [Dishes I've made include] fresh pasta with lobster and white truffle risotto.