"Let’s call them the Allegro Singers: always go, go, go; never stop!” said Moya Rea, one of Hong Kong’s busiest pianists at the time, after a performance more than 50 years ago.
“It was a concert of myself and my students in January 1964,” says Barbara Fei Ming-yee, 83, the Paris-trained soprano and founder of the Allegro Singers. “Moya accompanied my students in singing Hwang Yau-tai’s song Three Friends of Winter. Conductor Wilson Hsueh was very pleased with the performance and proposed keeping the singers and naming them the Ming-yee Chorus. Moya overheard that”, and came up with her alternative name, recalls Fei, the group’s music director.
In June 1964, the month the Beatles made their historic visit to Hong Kong, the Allegro Singers were registered as a non-profit organisation.
While the Fab Four’s story has slipped into the history books, that of the Allegro Singers is still unfolding, and their annual gala concerts, complete with newly commissioned works and their trademark cheongsams, are a highlight of the performing arts calendar. Nothing, including the founder’s near-fatal heart failure in 2000, has stopped the show, and tonight their 50th gala takes place in the Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
“Local choruses in the 1960s, such as the Cecilian Singers and Robin Boyle Singers, were mostly for expatriates. My teacher, Professor Chao Mei-pa, also had his own, the Crescendo Singers, which was a large choir joined by many celebrities, including the chief editor of the South China Morning Post,” recalls Fei. “But my group offered something totally different, presenting smaller but refined choral works sung by local Chinese singers and chamber works on Western or Chinese instruments.
“My objective is to impart taste and finesse for the audience through carefully structured themes and programmes. The format turned out to be hugely popular at the time, when life was simple and performances scarce,” she says.
“The level of performance was as high as their passion,” says Darwin Chen Tat-man, manager of City Hall in the 1960s. “Audiences were less picky or critical then, but more appreciative for the performers originally from China, like [the Allegro Singers].
“Almost everyone knew Chinese folk tunes, but no one sang like Barbara and her singers. She applied Western technique to the original folk songs and that became very appealing compared with the deafening revolutionary songs,” he says, adding that Fei’s charisma, coupled with her signature cheongsam, was a big advantage, and the Allegro Singers were often featured on radio and television.
But this was the turbulent 60s. The Cultural Revolution gripped the mainland in 1966 and bloody riots rocked Hong Kong a year later. Singing Chinese folk songs was a politically sensitive undertaking.
“All the programmes had to be vetted and approved by the Special Branch of the Hong Kong Police, to weed out any politically sensitive content. It was no exception for the Allegro Singers,” says Chen.
But Fei, the eldest daughter of legendary mainland film director Fei Mu, knew all too well how to secure a green light.
“I took out some of the could-be problematic ones, such as mainland composer Li Huanzhi’s song Sheng Chan Mang [Busy Labour], and I changed it to Si Ji Ge [Song of the Four Seasons],” she says.
The Allegro Singers’ Chinese repertoire consisted mainly of new works and arrangements by long-term associates and collaborators of Fei. One was the aforementioned Hwang, whose work inspired the formation of the group. The composer, who trained in Italy, wrote a new piece for the Allegro Singers’ annual concert each year until his retirement to Taiwan, in 1987. He, along with composer Lin Sheng-shih and lyricist Harold Wei, were known as the “three friends of winter”, who together produced more than 60 Chinese songs for Fei and her chorus.
Tonight, Chan Wing-wah, a composer, academic and the music director of the Hong Kong Oratorio Society, will see his work Happiness for All premiere at the concert.
“The Allegro Singers have their strength in lyricism rather than power,” says Chan. “Their tenor section may not carry a brilliant sound [because it is small], but it’s pretty stable and can deliver a melodic line very nicely along with the strong soprano section. That is what I have composed for, for the happy occasion,” Chan says of his gift.
The commissioning of works was a rarity in the 60s. But the Allegro Singers set a precedent that was quickly adopted by others and deemed significant for the building of local culture.
Chen recalls asking Ng Tai-kong, founding music director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, in 1977, to commission new works for each concert season. After 37 years, the orchestra boasts more than 2,000 original works, more than any other Chinese ensemble in the world.
Incidentally, Ng made his Hong Kong debut as an erhu player at an Allegro Singers concert in 1965.
“Vocal works aside, my concerts offer a platform for young instrumentalists, including piano accompanists,” says Fei.
Of lasting importance is a body of Allegro Singers choral works based on classical Tang and Song dynasty poems and set to four-part choruses using Western techniques. It was no small feat for these songs to be sung in Hong Kong as the mainland was being engulfed by the Cultural Revolution, which eliminated classical traditions.
“These are genuine works of a high artistic level bearing Chinese traditions but made in and for Hong Kong,” says Johnny Au Choi-kai, a tenor and chairman of the Allegro Singers since 1989. “Without the Allegro Singers, these works would not have existed.”
The works were performed in 1970 during a tour of Taiwan, in the first overseas shows given by the group, says Fei. But art, like many things, was eclipsed by the politics of the day.
“People often associated me with my second uncle, Fei Yimin, publisher of [the pro-Beijing newspaper] Ta Kung Pao, who discouraged me from visiting Taiwan. So I was called not white or red but pink,” Fei laughs.
In the 70s, when the Allegro Singers became a full-grown, 70-member choir, the repertoire was expanded to include songs from musicals such as The King and I and Negro spirituals. Two of the latter, The Good Lord, by Robert Noruran, and Hold My Hand, by Wallace De Pue, were introduced to a Guangzhou audience in 1981, during the Lunar New Year festivities. It was the group’s second visit to the city within a year and, in August 1980, the Allegro Singers became the first Hong Kong choral group to perform in Beijing and Shanghai.
The Allegro Singers began to take on a new role providing a bridge between the mainland and Hong Kong. In 1985, the group led some 1,000 choristers at the Hong Kong Coliseum in a rendition of the Yellow River Cantata, an anti-Japanese standard written in the late 30s, during the war with Japan. The conductor was Yan Liangkun, from Beijing, whom Fei had known since her student years at the National Conservatory of Music in Nanjing.
“It was around the time of the Sino-British talks over the future of Hong Kong that the Allegro Singers began to collaborate more with mainland musicians,” says Chen. “Barbara has the best connections in China and she is the best agent to introduce Hong Kong musical culture and be accepted in the mainland.”
Nevertheless, Fei and her choristers were among some 30 local groups to perform Ode to China at a special concert at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown.
“I didn’t think about whether the move would anger Beijing,” says Fei. “We have our own objectives and independent thinking. We just did what needed to be done.
“Every country or society has its ups and downs, and the art of music is at its best when it comes to expressing one’s thoughts and feelings.”
Au recalls that there were no adverse effects on subsequent activities in the mainland, “in much the same way the chief executive [Leung Chunying] has fared well despite his posting an ad [criticising the crackdown in the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po in 1989].”
As director of the Buildings Department from 2008 until March this year, Au was caught in the media storm in 2012 over the illegal basement at former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen’s Kowloon Tong residence.
“Singing with my choral colleagues was the best relief for me in those days,” he recalls.
All Allegro performers are amateurs and receive no remuneration in any form for rehearsing or performing. Rather, they each pay a monthly membership fee of HK$300 and fund their own air travel when on tour.
Mass emigration in the run-up to the handover dealt a blow to the Allegro Singers, whose numbers dropped from 70 to about 40, where they remain today. Male voices are especially thin on the ground, with the group down to just six tenors and six basses.
“We guys are still the society’s main labour force, and the workload is always on the increase,” says Au. “Another reason [for the lack of men], I think, is that men are less talented in language skills, especially when it comes to diction and foreign languages like German and French songs.”
All Allegro concerts include songs sung in languages other than Chinese and English. Tonight’s gala, for instance, will begin with Haydn’s Kyrie Eleison (in Latin) and Beethoven’s Hallelujah (in German) performed by the mixed choir, and will include Schubert’s An Die Musik (in German) sung by the ladies’ choir.
What makes their task especially challenging is that the Allegro Singers are required to memorise all the lyrics.
“That’s what my teachers required of me and I can see the merit of performing without scores,” says Fei. “The early members … were very industrious and came with good score-reading skills thanks, perhaps, to the British education system. But now people are loaded with work and have little time for rehearsals,” she says.
Polly Chan Ying-ha, a business graduate from Baptist University who joined the Allegro Singers as a soprano in 1999, says the variety of the group’s repertoire and, most of all, the serious attitude of members towards weekly rehearsals is what attracted her to the singers.
“Their approach is absolutely professional,” says Chan. “My first rehearsal with them was at Ms Fei’s home, and we spent a lot of time working on intonation alone.
“Ms Fei is definitely the soul of the whole enterprise. She rehearses with us for 90 per cent of the time and she often shares with us everything about the music, from background to singing technique. That is very enriching for aficionados like me,” she says.
Chan recalls Fei falling seriously ill in 2000. The veteran conductor had to undergo a major operation and her weight dropped to just 80 pounds.
“But as soon as she could walk, she came to the rehearsals and at times couldn’t help but give instruction. That explains what has kept us together after all these years,” Chan says.
Fei bounced back, and went from strength to strength. Aside from the annual concerts, she led the Allegro Singers at the Sars relief concert in 2003 and on numerous tours, including to Busan, in South Korea (2006) and Toronto, in Canada (2012).
Emotions ran high when the Allegro Singers performed at the Golden Hall in Vienna, Austria, in 2008. It was a special moment for Fei, who had performed in the city as a student in the late 50s.
With the passing of the “three friends of winter” and, lately, of her husband of 60 years, Fei cherishes her loyal singers more than ever.
“My work over the past half century has been a lonely battle [without government support], and the impact has been limited. Choral work can only flourish if it becomes in vogue in a society – and that can happen only with vision from the government.”
The octogenarian soprano and conductor remains optimistic.
“I hope the Allegro Singers will be the mustard seed that will help the flower of choral arts blossom in Hong Kong one day.”
The Allegro Singers 50th Annual Concert will take place at 7.45pm this evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui. Tickets cost HK$100-HK$200. For inquiries, call Urbtix at 3761 6661 or 9673 9031.