Choi Ho-man is out to engineer a musical revival. He moved between radically different disciplines when he became a conductor after studying science as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Similarly, there's no reason others can't keep making music while pursuing unrelated careers, says the 32-year-old, who has led several orchestras after earning a master's degree in conducting in the US. That's why Choi is building an orchestra to provide a transitional platform for university students and graduates before they get full-time jobs. Basing it on a US model, he hopes Pro Arte - 'for the arts' in Latin - will foster a lasting passion for music among young people. He aims to recruit about 50 musicians aged 25 or below for the orchestra which is scheduled to start playing in October. Hong Kong doesn't cater for people who want to continue to play music even though they may study other subjects at university, says Choi, who has led the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in Indiana, in the US, and the Hong Kong Metropolitan Youth Orchestra. Taking music as a minor at a local university isn't appealing since the heavy academic load means there's usually little exposure to music and there are few opportunities to play in an orchestra. 'I went through that struggle myself after completing secondary education. If I'd stayed in Hong Kong I would have had to decide whether or not to go to the Academy for Performing Arts [APA], but there I wouldn't have been be able to major in a non-music subject.' That's not to say young people shouldn't enrol in the APA when they've decided to specialise in music, but many aren't able to make up their minds yet, Choi says. Although they may be serious musicians, they may want to have a taste of other career options as well. 'Tchaikovsky was a lawyer; Schubert was an educator,' Choi says. 'In the US, when I tell people I have a background in neuroscience, they say I'm a Renaissance man. Where's our Renaissance man in Hong Kong? Specialisation is important for the growth of a society, but it requires a broad foundation.' Pro Arte will offer orchestra members free tuition and scholarships, because charging fees may compromise the quality of students, says Choi, who is its music director. 'I don't want to see any talented youngster being deprived of the opportunity due to financial worries,' says Choi, whose own tertiary studies were funded by scholarships. He fondly recalls his experiences with his college choir and the university chamber orchestra while at Cambridge. 'Everyone was so engaged in making music,' he says. 'They truly enjoyed the process. At that time, I thought that one day I would bring this spirit back to Hong Kong.' Choi says the development of music in Hong Kong has been hampered by vicious competition and hopes Pro Arte can help foster a culture of sharing among musicians. 'While music-making has an element of competition, it isn't just about who plays the violin better,' he says. 'It's only when musicians enjoy [what they're playing] and are willing to learn from each other that music can grow.' Among his frustrations in establishing Pro Arte was a lack of guidance from the Arts Development Council about such matters as how to be financially accountable and information about grant application. The response was typically bureaucratic, he says. Pro Arte will initially rely on private donations, but Choi hopes to seek corporate sponsorship. His bold venture shouldn't come as a surprise. Not one to take the conventional route, he studied neuroscience for his bachelor's degree. Later, he met considerable resistance when Samuel Wong, then music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, appointed him its resident conductor at the age of 26. He has his work cut out trying to get Pro Arte off the ground. There's a shortage of suitable venues that can regularly accommodate a full orchestra and funding is a major hurdle - he needs to raise HK$30 million to sustain the orchestra over the long term, but won't say how much he has got so far. Choi says businesses in Hong Kong are less inclined to donate to the arts than those in the US, where the corporate culture is characterised by a greater concern with social responsibility and maintaining an artistic image. The Hong Kong government should encourage companies to support the arts by providing tax exemptions and facilitating links between companies and arts circles, he says. Along with the private sector, it should also give higher priority to arts development. 'Do we have that vision? I don't think we do at the moment,' he says. 'We should stop looking so myopically at what grades we attain in music exams or whether big bucks can be made [from music events]. 'The arts are indispensable to Hong Kong, which pitches itself as Asia's world city. Even [people on] the mainland are talking about how culture strengthens a country. If our nation is looking into the issue, isn't Hong Kong a lot behind?' Still, the conductor is upbeat about his prospects of recruiting proficient musicians for his orchestra - 'many young people know that playing solos isn't enough' - but says they'll need to develop more inquiring minds. 'Hong Kong students may be able to play all the notes or expressions on the score, but often they can't see the meaning of the notations,' he says. Many don't ask simple questions that may lead to greater understanding or new discoveries about the compositions because their creativity is often suppressed, he says. 'If we can do that, we'll bring the audience back to the concert hall.' The emphasis on examinations, especially qualifications from the Royal Schools of Music, is another hurdle. 'If we only focus on grades, then the exams pose an obstacle to learning music,' Choi says. 'It's important in music education to include opportunities to perform in different settings and knowledge of music pieces that aren't related to exams. But these entail extra costs and resources and are often shunned because of the commercial mentality. 'The only way to learn music is to do a lot of sight reading, read, play and listen to different kinds of music. Exams can be a mid-term goal, but can never be the ultimate aim, which is enjoyment.'