Scrapping of ‘immature’ orchestral work hits Hong Kong handover celebration

Renowned composer Chen Ning-chi says he was told his work could not be performed in Hong Kong due to strong reactions from musicians in rehearsals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 8:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 1:18pm

The scrapping of a top local composer’s orchestral work because it was considered “immature” has become the first hiccup in the year-long cultural extravaganza being prepared to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the city’s 1997 handover to China.

Chen Ning-chi, a renowned composer who has written major works for Western and Chinese orchestras since settling in Hong Kong in 1973, was told last Wednesday that his work, Miracle of the Orient, had been dropped from the opening concert of the visiting Beijing-based China National Traditional Orchestra in May.

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“The orchestra’s chairman, Xi Qiang, called me from Beijing to say that my work was not to be performed due to ‘strong reactions’ from the musicians in rehearsals,” Chen,77, told the Post.

“He did not say which aspect of my work had produced such a reaction, but his tone was stern,” he added.

Professional musicians, he said, should play the notes and let the audience judge the music.

Chen, born in Indonesia and a graduate of Beijing’s Central Conservatory, said it was “a huge surprise” when Xi called last September to commission a work on a Hong Kong theme for his 70-member orchestra.

“My works were performed at the 1997 handover and so I was thrilled at the invitation,” he said.

Chen, who has composed for flagship orchestras in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and was a recipient of the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong’s Hall of Fame Award in 2015, completed what was his first mainland-commissioned work and delivered the score before the 15 March deadline, with a note that he would be available for rehearsals in Beijing.

But the host declined his offer and remained silent until Chen was told his work was being withdrawn.

While Xi declined to speak to the Post, a spokesman for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which is presenting the two concerts on May 6 and 7 among some 300 anniversary events throughout the year, said it would respect the orchestra’s decision.

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Chen Xieyang, the guest conductor who was supposed to premiere the new work at Sha Tin Town Hall on May 6, said technical issues rendered the piece unfit for public performance.

“We ran through the score for two days and felt that the harmonic lines muffled the main melody,” he told the Post from Beijing.

“It was a premature work that needed to be refined, but the composer wasn’t there and time had run out,” he added.

But the Hong Kong composer argued he was entitled to know about any problem with the score and he was only a phone call away.

“I think the biggest respect accorded me would be a heads-up about the problems encountered in the score, as I am eager more than anyone to see what my new-born child looks like,” Chen said.

“If I found my work below par, I would pull it out and give them a full refund,” he said, referring to a partial payment he has received.

But he was confident that the 15-minute work, which features the ringing of the bell at the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower and the iconic theme song Below the Lion Rock, would be appreciated in the city.

“All I need is a release paper and the music can be performed,” he said.