Hong Kong Philharmonic plays for its own with charity concert for viola player's son

Orchestra to perform in support of long-time viola player whose son is being treated in Philadelphia for cancer that has affected both his eyes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 January, 2015, 4:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 January, 2015, 2:00pm

“What have we done that the heavens would inflict pain after pain onto us?” asked Li Ming, mother of Henry Shao Zhiyan.

The 2½-year-old boy is undergoing treatment at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia for cancer in his right eye, and the cost has stretched the resources of his modest family of four nearly to their limit.

His left eye was removed in an operation over the summer as part of treatment for bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that affects both eyes.

With the Save Little Henry charity concert on Thursday, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, led by music director Jaap van Zweden, will come to the aid of Li, who has played viola with the orchestra since 2004.

Li’s colleagues hope the free concert at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui will raise HK$1 million in donations to pay for Henry’s plaque radiotherapy, which is used to treat eye tumours and unavailable in the city.

“I have a lot of trust in the people of Hong Kong and their generosity,” van Zweden said.

The charity concert was initially intended to be much smaller. A group of mostly string players had planned to perform a chamber music concert without a conductor at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

“I said no to that because they can’t do that without me,” said van Zweden, who is one of the busiest conductors on the international circuit. He recently finished a series of concerts in New York and Dallas.

“It’s extremely important that we are there to stand for each other,” he said.

Word spread fast and the venue was changed from the 600-seat theatre to a 2,000-seat hall with a stage large enough for the full, 90-member orchestra to perform Antonín Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

“When I saw all the hands go up as I asked the orchestra for volunteers, I was really moved,” said orchestra vice-chairman Y.S. Liu, whose eponymous charity foundation will present the show. Free tickets will be issued at the door and the audience can donate cash or cheques at the entrance. Special CDs will also be for sale.

“I think it’s not just about raising money for the desperately in need, but also creating the right spirit in the community. I can feel there is a bond in the orchestra that we do take care of each other and our children,” said Samuel Ferrer, an orchestra bassist who produced the CD, and the father of an 18-month-old girl.

Professor Dominic Lam Man-kit,  founder of the World Eye Organisation, wrote to his colleagues in Philadelphia for extra care and a better price for the young patient from Hong Kong.

“For Henry to suffer cancer in not one but both eyes is rare, but I can assure him and his family that they are now in best hands to terminate the tumour in his right eye,” the Hong Kong-based eye expert said. “And in the years ahead, even his artificial left eye could get electro-vision through new technology.”

Li Ming said that every supportive gesture “is a dosage to her belief that her son will recover” and that she and family are forever grateful.

“I want to say a special thank you to Jaap [van Zweden], who told me I should be with my husband and son in Philadelphia after the December concert and he even got [Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestral principal patron] Swire Group  to get me and my daughter air tickets to be there for Christmas with my family,” she said.

Henry has undergone 12 of 18 radiotherapy sessions and will undergo a month of observation some time between now and the end of February.

“The hospital has put the charity concert poster on the bulletin board and so now people know him as Henry, and don’t just say ‘Hi buddy’,” Li said with a rare laugh. “My son was starting to think his name was Buddy.”