Conductor Lio Kuok-man takes baton for first time since his appointment to Philadelphia Orchestra

Under Lio Kuok-man's baton, Mao-era music will have its world premiere tonight before his historic role at the Philadelphia Orchestra begins

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 4:48am

Local hero Lio Kuok-man, clearly the busiest musician in town this week, will be conducting a very special piece of music tonight that was rescued from Mao Zedong's Anti-Rightist Movement and is to finally have its world premiere at Sha Tin Town Hall.

The assistant conductor-designate to the Philadelphia Orchestra has been travelling through China with the American orchestra since the middle of last month, finishing up with concerts in Shenzhen and yesterday in Macau.

Tonight and tomorrow night, Lio, 32, will conduct the Pan Asia Symphony Orchestra in a challenging programme - including the first performance of a cello concerto almost six decades after it was written.

Audiences will also get to hear Appalachian Spring by US composer Aaron Copland, one of the required pieces at auditions earlier this year for the Philadelphia job that eventually went to Lio.

His success means that in September, he will become the first Chinese person to assume a conducting position at an elite international orchestra.

"How did I feel about the appointment? Well, I was sleepless for a week before the audition, stayed up for another three days anxiously awaiting the result, and was too excited to sleep for another week after the announcement," Lio said during a rehearsal break last night.

His triumph over some 200 applicants all came down to hard work, he said. "I conducted by memory throughout the audition," he said. "But there is no way to get around the orchestra members. Every one of them has a vote for or against a candidate."

Lio is a graduate of Hong Kong's Academy for Performing Arts. Although he is a native of Macau, he says his "musical roots" are in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong is very special to me, and I will definitely return to 'my hometown' whenever I can."

It was the Pan Asia that staged Lio's first piano concerto. Its concert tonight marks his first appearance since his Philadelphia appointment.

Yip Wai-hong, who founded the symphony orchestra in 1977 and has been its music director ever since, said his players were stunned by Lio's grasp of the music to be premiered tonight - Yip's own work.

"My Cello Concerto was actually my graduation work when I was a student at the Central Conservatory in 1955," the 83-year-old recalled.

"It was supervised by my teacher, Professor Jiang Wenye, and the visiting Soviet composer Boris Arapov, and it was approved after its performance with the piano as accompaniment."

But the work was set aside after Mao launched the nationwide Anti-Rightist campaign. Jiang and later Yip were branded "rightists", with Yip sentenced to hard labour for 18 months.

"My weight dropped from 164 pounds (74kg) to just 88 pounds. When I arrived home, my wife asked, 'Who are you?'" he said.

Yip said the graduation piece survived the campaign that saw many of his works discarded.

"I brought the scores with me when my family and I settled in Hong Kong in 1961," he said. "I did some piecemeal revision. Not until this year, after a serious illness, did I decide to finalise the scores and put them on stage."

Lio described the three-movement work as "very tonal and reminiscent of the works of the young Shostakovich".

The cellist tonight is Zhu Yibin, a professor at Beijing's Central Conservatory, Yip's alma mater. Zhu's late father, too, was branded a rightist.

But present-day politics has no place in Lio's consideration of his career. "I just work for music, that's all," he said. From September, Lio will lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in family and school concerts. He will also be on standby for the music director and guest conductors.