My life: Kate Lawson
The principal flute of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta tells Oliver Chou about her musical journey
Photo: Jonathan Wong
BORED AT THE BALLET I was born in the year George Orwell named his famous novel after, but it appears to have been a normal one to me. Neither of my parents plays music but my mother came from a big family, and there was a lot of music there. She took notice of my interest in music when I was small. She got me a piano but I hated practising. What really got me interested in music was a ballet my mum took me to. It was Don Quixote and we sat in the front row. I was so bored that I started looking into the pit orchestra. The sound of the flute and probably its shiny look captured my attention. “I want to play that thing.” I pointed at it, not knowing that “that thing” was called a flute. I was about seven, growing up in a Sydney suburb. So the flute was my choice and I was never forced to practise it. Shortly after that my primary school started a school band and we had a fantastic teacher fresh from music school. The way he led the band in music-making is what really got me hooked. I was then in second grade and I enjoyed very much playing in an orchestra as a member more than a soloist.
A DIFFERENT TUNE Music did not occur to me as a career option until I chose industrial design in the required work-experience scheme for high school students in Australia. I always thought being a designer could be fun, but after two or three weeks at the design company my dad had helped to get me into, I realised the reality was not what I imagined, and (it) was not really me. It was after that that I began to think about music (as a career). But then I had to work against remarks like, “You are intelligent, you should study law,” or, “Be careful, a musician never gets a job or any money.” I am lucky my parents were supportive in my pursuit of things I like.
PLAYING GAMES They must have been very happy to see me as a member of the large marching band performing at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I still remember the crescendo of the roar of the crowd of 100,000 as the band emerged from underground in the main stadium. The band was made up of musicians from all over Australia, plus some from other countries. We rehearsed on and off for a whole year and then two weeks in camp just before the opening. We did many different national anthems.
CHILL WIND AT THE OPERA HOUSE A year after that, I made my debut solo appearance at the Sydney Opera House. It was my high school examination performance and I was required to play a contemporary work by an Australian composer. I chose Anne Boyd’s Red Sun, Chill Wind. Later, I learned she taught at the University of Hong Kong in the 1980s. During my four years at the Sydney Conservatorium, there were a lot of good flute players there, and I was not by any means at the top of the pile. Aside from the school ensemble, I also played in the Sydney Youth Orchestra and the Australian Youth Orchestra. A more important experience for me was the Sydney Sinfonia, which consists of half professional players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and half students. I got to sit alongside fantastic professional flute players and learned acclaimed orchestra playing. From the Sinfonia I got through another round of auditions into the fellowship programme of the Sydney Symphony. It was a full-time position and I got to play as a casual, with the orchestra and in many chamber-music concerts. There was one that I will never forget.
A MYSTERY AUDIENCE In 2008, we were told we needed to perform at a private concert – without knowing where it was and who the audience would be. We found out shortly before the performance it was for Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Australia. I and a few fellowship members were chosen to perform for the Holy See. So myself, an oboist and a string quartet played two concerts of chamber music by Mozart and Beethoven. The pontiff was sitting on an armchair, surrounded by his entourage. I was quite nervous and kept saying to myself: “Don’t do anything wrong.” He was very friendly and greeted us one by one after the concert, saying “Thank you very much for coming.” He also gave each of us a rosary, blessed by him, and a medallion. They are now with my parents, in the safe probably.
OUT FROM DOWN UNDER Like every Australian in my generation, we get used to the idea that you have to go away at some point. So, in 2009, I went to The Hague (in the Netherlands) and studied a master’s degree at the Royal Conservatory. But it was then a tough time for orchestras due to economic hardship. It was next to impossible to get a job in Europe without an EU passport, but I did get invited to an audition at the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Obviously I did not get the job, but I learned a lot by observing other applicants at the audition. Shortly after that I won the audition for the principal flute position at the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
LOCAL LIFE Hong Kong is no strange place to me. My parents love the city and brought me here a few times when I was younger. I like the madness here, the traffic, the crowd, the heat, all completely different from The Hague, which is rather sleepy. I also missed the water when I was there. I am glad Hong Kong is a harbour city, although it is more a working harbour than the scenic one in Sydney. The Hong Kong audience comes from all walks of life, and includes a lot of young people compared to the white, middle-class older audiences in the West. It’s a good time to be in Asia, for musicians at least.
Kate Lawson will perform a flute concerto by Vivaldi with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta at 8pm on Saturday, at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. For tickets, go to www.hksl.org.