Yan Huichang: conductor hitting all the right notes
Yan Huichang has spent 15 years breaking records with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and now hopes to spread his success in Taiwan
Exactly half a century ago, Yan Huichang was a peasant boy with a bamboo flute herding cows in Shaanxi, the northwest province of the yellow earth.
"I loved watching the deer come to a standstill and raise their ears when I played a note on the flute early in the morning," recalled the principal conductor of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra since 1997.
Over the years, the bamboo flute has become a baton which the 58-year old maestro wields with increasing command.
His career features a long list of superlatives.
He was the first - and only - conductor to train in leading Chinese orchestras under an exclusive programme after the Cultural Revolution. His speciality saw him join Beijing's National Chinese Orchestra aged 29. Four years later, in 1987, he became the youngest Class One conductor among the veteran maestros in China.
After six years in senior music posts in Singapore and Taiwan as a composer-conductor, Yan joined the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra as music director just one month before the handover, making him the first conductor to have led major Chinese orchestras in so many parts of Greater China.
His latest accolade is the appointment as principal guest conductor of Taiwan's National Chinese Orchestra, the island's flagship ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments.
This makes him the de facto artistic chief, as there is no music director above him.
"It was a nice surprise when they approached me last December with the appointment, which I gladly accepted," Yan said.
A bigger surprise was awaiting him as he arrived last month at the orchestra's Taipei office to sign the two-year contract.
The players formed a welcome corridor for him, cheering and chanting to drum beats. "It was very moving," he said.
The orchestra, founded in 1984, has been without a music director for two years and with the 30th anniversary coming up in 2014, the 50-member ensemble needed a lift.
"The appointment of internationally renowned conductor-composer Yan Huichang will not only boost the orchestra's morale, but will bring about a new horizon to Chinese music in Taiwan, with the objectives of exploring tradition," the Taiwanese orchestra's press office said.
But while the appointment made headlines in Taiwan, it was not well publicised in Hong Kong. "I don't think the news is worth its while in Hong Kong as my concurrent work in Taiwan is preceded by my Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra duty," Yan said.
"A guest-conducting post in another orchestra is common among Western conductors, but not so for Chinese orchestras. So I'd prefer no reporting in the local media in order to avoid a misunderstanding that I am not settled in my work in Hong Kong," he added.
The maestro need not be overly concerned, considering his fruitful alliance with the Hong Kong flagship orchestra for the past 15 years.
It is his longest stretch in a post and is a landmark in service among the orchestra's previous music directors.
From the moment he raised the baton under the pouring rain at the handover ceremony in Tamar on June 30, 1997, there has been no turning back for him and the 85-member orchestra in setting one milestone after another.
With the orchestra's incorporation in 2001, Yan saw a wide-open future to build the group from a performing body to a world-class centre of Chinese music encompassing new works, instrument reform, education and community service.
For that, he relocated his family from Singapore to Hong Kong to make his vision a reality. Over the following 10 years, the orchestra became a bastion of Chinese orchestral music with three Guinness World Records under its belt. That included one in 2003 for the largest number of drummers, which was set under the scorching sun in Victoria Park to help raise the community's spirit after the Sars outbreak.
Yan, leading the drums, was awarded a Bronze Bauhinia Medal the following year. Last year, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra became the first local arts group to receive the Innovation Prize - awarded every three years from the national Ministry of Culture - for its breakthrough in reforming the 1,000-year old huqin - the Chinese fiddle.
It was a project Yan initiated against all odds. He and his team only felt justified when the band stood on stage at the 2009 Klara Festival in Belgium with a full set of "Eco-huqin", as it is trademarked, and received thunderous applause.
But the ultimate endorsement was in China, the land where the modern Chinese orchestra originated in the 1950s.
In January 2008, Yan and his players brought honour to Hong Kong when they were the first Chinese ensemble to perform at the new National Centre for the Performing Arts in the heart of Beijing.
With the Taiwan appointment, Yan looks forward to embracing the island's rich humanistic tradition.
His leadership of two flagship orchestras should bring Hong Kong and Taiwan cultural ties to a higher level, including the co-commissioning of works from composers in both areas.
"The exchange has always been going on. Last summer we held a conductor workshop in Taipei. The week-long event drew some 30 young conductors to compete for 10 places," he said.
"If we talk about genuine Hong Kong culture for export, then that is it."
Currently Artistic director and principal conductor, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra; permanent conductor, Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra; principal guest conductor, Taiwan National Chinese Orchestra.
Previous posts Principal conductor, China National Chinese Orchestra; visiting professor, China Conservatory; music director, Naxos Music (Singapore); resident conductor, Taiwan Kaohsiung Chinese Orchestra.
Education Xi'an Conservatory, Shanghai Conservatory.
Personal Married, two children.