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Pros and cons: the Hong Kong Philharmonic turns 40

As the Hong Kong Philharmonic marks its 40th anniversary, Oliver Chou looks back at the trials and triumphs involved in creating an orchestra to be proud of

 

''Orchestra to turn 'pro' soon," ran a headline on the front page of the South China Morning Post, on March 6, 1973. The orchestra in question was the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

The previous time a story about an orchestra had made it to the Post's front page was in 1959, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra arrived in Hong Kong. But whereas the Vienna visit had been a one-off event, the launch of Hong Kong's first professional orchestra would have a lasting legacy. Marking its 40th anniversary next Saturday, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has become what Dr Solomon Bard, its chairman in 1973, hoped it would: "a competent professional orchestra worthy of support".

That the former Sino-British Orchestra turned professional in the 1970s was a sign of the times. The bullish atmosphere in the city in 1973, best reflected in the Heng Sang Index's then high of 1,700 points, hit in March, set the scene. More importantly, though, the Urban Council became autonomous that year and, according to cultural affairs veteran Darwin Chen, many council members, himself included, were arts enthusiasts.

"There was no high-sounding philosophy behind us, but simply three things: good venues, good artists and good audiences," the former director of cultural services recalls. "While we had no problem with venues and audiences, we didn't have music companies of a high standard. So it was a matter of strategy to nurture professional companies.

"We looked at the existing semi-professional groups and turned them into full professional companies."

As with the launch of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1973, the founding of a professional orchestra was a move to upgrade the city's culture. The 70s were a time of major institution building - the Independent Commission Against Corruption, formed in 1974, is another example - during an economic take-off that brought forth an affluent and educated middle class. The emerging "little dragon" needed a brand identity and a professional orchestra was a part of it.

After a year of hectic preparation, including the auditioning of players and engaging of guest artists, the Hong Kong Philharmonic was launched into its professional era on January 11, 1974. The founding music director was Lim Kek-tjiang, an Indonesian-Chinese who had embarked on a music career as a violinist in Amsterdam. Under his baton, 77 musicians performed works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky at City Hall.

The concert, attended by governor Murray MacLehose, received a rave review in the Post, which concluded: "With time to meld and mould, to rehearse and to build up a strong membership, the fulfilment of the promise of a first-class orchestra of our own will not be far off."

On the orchestra's history since, no one speaks with more authority than Fan Ting, the incumbent second violin principal and the orchestra's only remaining member from the 1974 roster.

"We are now a totally different orchestra from what we were then," he says. "After all these years, we are way above basic technicalities such as rhythm or articulation. We are now capable of great music-making and thus we welcome world-class conductors to come and work with us."

Fan was also one of the few members of the amateur band who made the leap to professionalism. "Before turning professional, players came from all walks of life, from students to retirees, just like most amateur orchestras. But it all changed in 1974, when we recruited international musicians and rehearsed full time."

So Hau-leung, the Phil's first general manager in 1974, recalls that the young professional orchestra performed a standard repertoire in the early days, mostly under Lim, who worked hard on brushing up the ensemble. The annual budget of HK$1.8 million was not enough to bring in famous conductors or soloists. But there was one exception.

"We wanted to get violinist Itzhak Perlman to perform at a fundraising concert but did not have the money to pay him," So says. "I happened to know he was very fond of Chinese food, so I told his agent that if he would come to Hong Kong, we wouldn't pay him the usual fee but he would get the world's best Chinese food. In the end he came and performed not one but two concertos, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, with us." That that 1976 concert realised a net profit of HK$253,000.

But the young orchestra suffered growing pains and a series of major upheavals. In less than three years, both founding music directors and the general manager had resigned. German conductor Hans Gunter Mommer took up the baton, pairing with managerial partner Richard Gamlen. Neither lasted beyond 1978. American-Chinese Ling Tung became the third music director, in 1979 - but two years later, 62 players signed a joint letter asking for him to go.

The lack of a union and tenured contracts was a source of tension and insecurity among players, especially when a new music director took office. However, Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was appointed to the position in 1984 after having guest conducted for 22 concerts, including taking the orchestra on an extensive tour of Southeast Asia and Japan, managed to calm the waters.

"Schermerhorn was a very charismatic conductor, on and off the podium, and we had a great time working with him, such as on the first and fifth symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which was very difficult music that we did for the first time," Fan recalls.

"His tour with us at the Osaka international music festival in 1983 was especially memorable, because the guest orchestra that performed before us was the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC and the one after us was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. What an honour it was to be in the same league as those top orchestras."

But it was the 1986 mainland tour that established the Hong Kong Phil as an orchestra par excellence in relation to counterparts in Shanghai and Beijing. The tour also brought Hong Kong to the attention of an American audience; venerable magazine Musical America featured the mainland performances as a cover story. It was the second time the Hong Kong Phil had featured prominently in the international music news; in 1982, Maxim Shostakovich, son of famous Soviet composer Dmitri, made his Hong Kong debut shortly after having defected to the West.

The Phil was making waves at home, too. According to Tseng Sun-man, then in charge of the orchestra's promotion and publicity, the opening of Queen Elizabeth Stadium, in 1980, and then the Coliseum, in Hung Hom, in 1983, made ticket sales a more profitable line of income.

"We had up to six sets of pop concerts a year, which featured Chinese orchestral works or Broadway themes, sometimes with a Canto-pop star. We sold about 40,000 tickets per event, which could add up to 240,000 tickets per season," he recalls.

Recordings of these concerts, on vinyl or cassette tapes, sold like hot cakes. The live recording of Canto-pop star Michael Kwan Ching-kit's six consecutive concerts in 1982, for example, became a platinum record (50,000 copies sold) for the Phil. It had been preceded by another platinum record, titled Colourful Clouds, which had also been released on HK Record, a modest imprint then based in To Kwa Wan that would grow into the world's largest classical music label: Naxos.

The arrival of British conductor David Atherton as the fifth music director heralded another phase for the Phil. During his 11-year reign, the longest to date, the city's flagship orchestra navigated a historic decade.

Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana were present as his reign began, with the opening of the Cultural Centre, in November 1989. Five years later, Atherton led the orchestra in the recording of a Stravinsky album for Virgin EMI Classics, the Phil's first recording for a major international label. The orchestra set sail for its debut North American tour a year after that.

Ada Wong Ying-kay, then chairwoman of the Philharmonic's general committee, remembers of the US tour: "[It was] a nervous moment to actually perform for a Western audience without knowing whether they would applaud or express displeasure at our performance. I was at their concerts in San Francisco and San Jose, and I must say everyone did their best and drew very long applause, much to my relief."

One performance that would be hard to exceed in terms of historical significance would be that which took place on the night of June 30, 1997. But while many recall that momentous night, when the full orchestra performed at HMS Tamar under a black rainstorm signal as Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, fewer will remember the three-day tour to Beijing and Shanghai that had been undertaken a month earlier.

"The beginning and end of the programme - Beethoven's Prometheus and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony - should give our masters-in-waiting a sense of honest emotional mastery," the Post's reviewer said of the Beijing concert.

At the handover ceremony itself, "the roof was not big enough to cover the stage we were on and when it started raining, the rain came straight on top of our instruments," says principal cellist Richard Bamping. "Luckily we'd brought cheap instruments to play, so there wasn't too much damage.

"It was definitely a proud moment for us, the Brits, on the stage, as we were handing Hong Kong back in good shape."

Nevertheless, expatriate musicians had become jittery over a rumour that the orchestra would become all-Chinese after the handover.

"I checked and confirmed that it was just a rumour," says Wong, "so I assured the orchestra that nothing would happen and the smooth transition would apply as much to Hong Kong Phil as to Hong Kong at large."

Atherton concluded his directorship on a high note, taking the orchestra to open the 1999 Beijing Music Festival at the Great Hall of the People.

The first Hong Kong-born maestro to lead the home band took over in 2000. But Harvard ophthalmologist-turned-conductor Samuel Wong's homecoming came as the Urban Council, the Phil's funding agency since 1974, was abolished and replaced by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. As a result, the entire board of the Phil was reshuffled and budget cuts were imposed due to the Asian financial crisis. Cuts in benefits and lay-offs sent morale into a nosedive.

"Wong is a very nice guy, and I don't know whether the orchestra would have worked better only with a whip. But the two recordings he did with us were very good," says Fan, referring to Wong's recordings of works by Busoni and Bright Sheng for Naxos.

But such an accolade was not enough to carry Wong's directorship beyond two seasons, which were marred by a high turnover in staff, including the departure of general manager Edith Lei Mei-lon, and dwindling box office receipts. And just as the future of the music director was at stake, the orchestra board went through another reshuffle in 2002. The new board made Wong principal conductor for the next two seasons while carrying out a global search for a new music director. (An orchestra's music director oversees all decisions on artistic matters. He or she is usually a conductor.)

It was in this capacity that Wong took the Hong Kong Philharmonic on its debut European tour in March 2003, as well as on a tour of South Korea shortly before. The hectic four-city, five-day tour through England, France and Ireland proved to be a whirlwind before a huge storm.

Shortly after the orchestra returned to Hong Kong, the Sars epidemic brought the city to a standstill. Like most public activities, concerts were cancelled to help check the spread of infection. When the deadly disease receded in May, a few of the Philharmonic's musicians took the initiative in cheering up the city.

"We'd done charity concerts and performed at hospitals before. But this one was different because it was community-wide, of historical and even international impact," recalls Andy Simon, the principal clarinettist. "So we asked to join Radio 4 of Radio Television Hong Kong in its cheer-up project and took a day off to perform Dvorak's Wind Serenade at the amphitheatre at Hong Kong Park. It was a hot day and we all sweated terribly. But it was a great occasion for us to give something back to the community, through music we played from the heart, as a temporary relief for the victims and their families present at the performance."

Less than two months after the relief concert, the musicians received a lift when Dutch conductor Edo de Waart agreed to become music director. He had made his Hong Kong debut with the London Philharmonic exactly 30 years before, at the inaugural Hong Kong Arts Festival.

"Unlike Wong, de Waart brought in his own men to make artistic decisions. It was a different class and standard," says Fan.

Despite the great strides the maestro made in his eight-year reign, in particular the memorable Mahler symphonies (these are notoriously hard to perform because the scores are long and complicated. De Waart managed to perform all but one of Mahler's major symphonic scores with the Hong Kong Phil), a high turnover of personnel continued to haunt the 30-year-old band. For instance, the chief executive changed four times and the concertmaster (the leader of the orchestra and the connection between conductor and players) thrice during de Waart's reign.

With the arrival of another Dutch maestro, Jaap van Zweden, 20 years younger than his predecessor, as the eighth music director, in 2012, some perennial issues, such as the high turnover in personnel, seemed to ease. Except for a new concertmaster, the roster change for the current season from the previous one is an unprecedented zero.

"This shows the stability of the orchestra, which is important for us to play together under our inspiring conductor," says James Boznos, timpanist and chairman of the players' artistic committee.

Liu Yuen-sung, incumbent board chairman and a violinist in the Philharmonic's pre-professional years, says the orchestra should aim high, "more than being the best in Asia".

"We are very confident that under Jaap we'll find our own sound. A good way to achieve that is through overseas tours. We are planning a tour to Europe in 2015 and perhaps to America, too, to exchange with the Dallas Symphony, with which Jaap has recently renewed his music directorship," Liu says.

He says he hopes the government will increase its financial support, which currently stands at HK$60 million per year, so that the orchestra can add an extra player to both the woodwind and brass sections, and tour beyond mainland China.

"The Hong Kong Philharmonic is now a highly flexible orchestra, capable of playing authentically the music of any given composer. The important thing is we are achieving this through our existing players, and not what we will recruit. The overwhelming response during our recent tour to Taipei can testify to our standard, which stands no lower than any major orchestra in the West," says Liu.

As for the future concert hall in West Kowloon, Liu says he and the orchestra are ready to perform in it.

"Some years ago, [then chief secretary Henry] Tang Ying-yen asked us to officiate the opening, provided we could play as well as the Vienna or Berlin philharmonics. Now we are getting very close to that level. But then we were told that the new concert hall won't be ready until 2022," says the chairman.

"Perhaps we'll do the [Phil's] 50th anniversary there."

 

 

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