How a joint student orchestra project is avoiding Chinese censorship of religious music

Seven orchestras from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau will play at Tsuen Wan Town Hall, looking to erase cultural barriers between different parts of the country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2017, 12:12pm

Hong Kong will play host to a joint orchestra project with students from across the region aiming to showcase an inclusive culture that is unifying and free of censorship.

After performing in Macau in 2015 and Guangzhou in 2016, the project, called the 3rd School Orchestra Festival of Four Regions Across the Straits, will feature seven orchestras from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau performing on Friday night and Saturday night at Tsuen Wan Town Hall.

“We have the same roots but our cultures have become different after all these years of separation, and I hope music, being neutral, will be a vehicle to bring our young ones together for a common cause,” Stella Lau, headmistress of Diocesan Girls’ School, the event organiser, told the Post.

Last year, differences over music content stood out when the Guangzhou hosts vetted the programmes to make sure no religious work was performed. The soundtrack to the film Pirates of the Caribbean got the green light instead.

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“Guangzhou education and cultural bureaus were the hosts so the event became rather official-like, and that is one reason why we run the event ourselves without involving the government,” Lau said.

The Hong Kong round will feature a chorus which, along with a joint orchestra formed by some 400 student musicians from the four regions, will perform Hymn of Praise from the Second Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn.

“We want to do something different from the first two festivals, which featured only orchestral works,” Leung Kin-fung, the festival’s artistic director and conductor of DGS orchestra, said.

“By performing Hymn of Praise, we want to show that we in Hong Kong are free to perform any works, including those with religious content,” Leung, first associate concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, added.

While there was no objection from Guangzhou over Guangdong Experimental High School students taking part in the performance, acquiring the music scores was a painstaking process.

“Music scores such as a Mozart concerto are downloadable in Guangzhou but not the Hymn of Praise. I have to send the scores as PDF files from Hong Kong,” he said.

Grace Chiang, the conductor of the Mendelssohn work on Saturday, said the work was chosen not because of its religious subject.

“It’s just that we are a Christian school and sing a lot of sacred music, and this work is not vocally taxing like, say, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy,” Chiang, a DGS music teacher, said.

Dorothy Hui, a conductor in Guangzhou last year, recalled mainland players had a problem following English instructions, such as “bar 72” during rehearsals. She was referring to music notations in the score sheet.

“But students gained exposure and learned from each other by making music together,” she said.

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Macy Yau Chin-yu, concertmistress of DGS and the joint orchestra, said: “It was fun with our different interpretations but it became challenging when I had to lead the sections to play together in just two rehearsals.”

She was not aware of the ban on religious music in Guangzhou, but said: “I like playing Mendelssohn more than Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Headmistress Stella Lau has set her sights on something more than playing the notes.

“I hope by playing Hymn of Praise, a seed is sown for those who don’t know it before: our belief is embracing and inclusive,” she said.