WHEN LEANNE NICHOLLS arrived in Hong Kong from Adelaide about 17 years ago, the performing arts scene seemed so lacklustre it was enough to make her want to turn around and head straight back to Australia. She didn't. A decade later, in 1999, she founded the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong (CCOHK), staged its first public concert, began quickly establishing a reputation that has been growing steadily ever since.
This Saturday, the orchestra will perform under guest conductor German Augusto Gutierrez in a concert described as a 'unique fusion of tango and classical', featuring bandoneon player Daniel Binelli and pianist Polly Ferman. Typical in its unusual programme content, it's a highlight of their current season - the first one to take subscriptions in advance, which Nicholls sees as another step forward.
'There wasn't much going on in 1989 except for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra,' Nicholls says. 'But I realised that, rather than just mope about it, I ought to get out there and do something about it.'
As a professional oboist, her vision for a new chamber orchestra was framed by her experience as a performer, having played with both the HKPO and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. 'I was contracted with [the Sinfonietta] for seven years during its development,' she says. 'But, in the Hong Kong Arts Festival, a chamber orchestra would visit every year and I saw how popular it was, probably because we didn't maintain a chamber orchestra of professional standard. This was a clear niche to fill.'
Her purpose in claiming that niche was twofold: giving audiences what they'd be unlikely to hear unless an overseas group came to Hong Kong; and giving the musicians what they wanted to play. 'Musicians who have a lot of experience with big orchestras always come back to chamber music because it's the most fulfilling, especially when we perform without a conductor and they're more involved with the interpretation of the music,' Nicholls says.
An orchestra can only be as good as the musicians it employs, however, and Nicholls is eager to dispel the myth that the city's two major symphony orchestras have the monopoly over the best players. 'There's this misconception in Hong Kong that professional means full-time and an unfortunate thinking that teaching and playing are two separate things,' she says. 'It's very important that students see their teachers performing on stage.'
During the early years, it was inevitable that funding would be Nicholls' biggest obstacle. Artistic vision has never been a problem for her, but it requires thinking at least two years in advance to get the artists she wants. She recalls 'the difficulty of planning that far ahead, and then the sponsorship didn't come in or the government project grants weren't received'.
'I had to put on one of our first concerts with a grant of only HK$35,000, which is peanuts,' she says. 'So I had to be really budget-conscious in order to make this orchestra survive.'
Gaining support from the government has been slow and challenging, but the dividends are now appearing, not least with the ensemble having its own office. Nicholls says that in 2005 'the Arts Development Council [ADC] came up with a fantastic idea to rent out space at an affordable rate in the Grand Millennium Plaza [Sheung Wan] to arts groups who were struggling to find offices because they're so expensive'.
The orchestra is now in its third year as a recipient of the ADC's One-Year Grant scheme, benefiting currently to the tune of HK$386,000, which Nicholls says has made a huge difference, 'because we can plan the whole season at one go and work out realistically what we can and can't do'.
As for the future, her vision remains undiminished and she's clearly excited by the prospect of taking the orchestra abroad next season. 'We've been invited to perform at a festival in Italy in a town called Ortona,' she says. 'We'll be taking two programmes - one with an Italian flavour and the other Chinese-western music', for which she'll commission new works.
Nicholls is solely responsible for the orchestra's programme planning. 'I'm the one who'll come up with things that have never been done before, not just in Hong Kong, but maybe worldwide,' she says. 'Currently, I'm planning a French baroque music programme with a couple of dancers trained in the art of early French dancing.'
How does she feel Hong Kong has progressed artistically since her initial encounter with that 'awfully annoying, old colonial mindset that anything to do with music had to be with the Philharmonic'?
'I think the arts scene is going forward finally, but it's only happening because of the small, budding arts groups,' Nicholls says. 'Those are the ones that are bringing diversity and more career opportunities, to the point where we might just be able to say that we're Asia's World City.'