20 years on from the handover, maestro keeps his faith in Hong Kong’s bright musical future

Yan Huichang says the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is still the best but regional rivals are catching up fast

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 9:21pm

The conductor of Hong Kong’s flagship orchestra says he has decided to stay on after witnessing 20 years of ups and downs and growing regional competition.

Yan Huichang, recently promoted to artistic director for life of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, says the memories of a city on the brink of the handover from colonial rule two decades ago are still fresh in his mind.

“Fate was kind to me when I started my work at HKCO on June 1, 1997,” Yan, 63, told the Post. “If I had arrived after July 1, I would not have witnessed what it was like working under British rule.”

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It was the institutional efficiency and clear regulations he noted at the orchestra on day one that attracted him to the job, and that has remained unchanged after 20 years.

“I was told HKCO, then under the government, would not interfere in any of my artistic decisions, but I would be held directly responsible for every decision I made. I found that fair and clear,” he recalled.

Prior to Hong Kong, Yan was principal conductor of Beijing’s Central Chinese Orchestra for seven years before he left for Singapore and Taiwan.

“Of all the places I lived and worked, Hong Kong is my number home because this is a place where the orchestra can function with steady financial support from the government but without interference.”

He said the HKCO used to be the dream job for top Chinese instrumentalists but that was no longer the case as competition had increased in the region.

“I remember as late as 2008 we were still considered the top band and got invited to be the first Chinese orchestra to perform at the new National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing,” he said.

Things changed rapidly in the ensuing years.

“There was a pipa player from Beijing that won the audition and we offered her the position. But she later informed us that having considered the working and living conditions in Beijing and Hong Kong, she decided to decline our offer,” he said.

I am a little disappointed that the authorities have not sought our advice in recent years
Yan Huichang, HKCO artistic director

“I think we are still the best Chinese orchestra, but our counterparts in China and Singapore are fast catching up with increasing support from their governments, which have come to see the importance of Chinese culture.”

He took the Singapore Chinese Orchestra as a case in point.

“They have their own home now at the heritage Conference Hall with a nominal $1 rent from the government, plus the annual fundraising drive personally undertaken by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,” Yan, who holds a Singaporean passport, said.

The recent emphasis on Chinese musical culture on the mainland had become an impetus for the Shaanxi native to stay in Hong Kong.

“My alma mater Shanghai Conservatory set up last year a research institute for advanced studies on Chinese music and I was honoured to be its visiting professor,” he said. “I hope the upsurge for Chinese music will factor in with the future concert hall in the West Kowloon Cultural District.”

He envisaged Hong Kong possibly becoming the first city with a concert hall that featured both a grand organ and a set of ancient chime bells, which is as revered an instrument in China as the organ is in the West.

“I am a little disappointed that the authorities have not sought our advice in recent years,” he said.

Referring to Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s officiating at an HKCO season-opening by playing a few notes on the guzheng, Yan said: “I have high hopes of the new chief executive advancing our cause.”