Hong Kong-born pianist Colleen Lee Ka-ling urges more local support for classical musicians

Hong Kong-born Colleen Lee Ka-ling finds she can't make a living performing classical music full time in a city more supportive of pop stars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 5:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 5:12am

Hong Kong lacks the musical infrastructure to allow gifted solo classical musicians to turn professional - despite the sky-high fees parents pay for tuition.

So says Colleen Lee Ka-ling, the only Hong Kong pianist to win a medal from the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. The competition takes place every five years, and some of the world's most renowned pianists have been among the winners.

A decade on from getting the award, Lee has played around the world to acclaim, but supplements her performing career by teaching part time at her alma mater, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. She would like to concentrate on performing full time, but says doing here is all but impossible.

"Unlike Taiwan or Japan where you can do a concert tour from city to city, Hong Kong is so small that you can't perform around the 18 districts," Lee said, speaking ahead of a recital of an all-Russian programme at the City Hall Theatre on Thursday.

"I wish Hong Kong had the kind of artist agency that would promote us local musicians to perform overseas through its connections in the classical music industry," she said. The pianist recalled the enthusiastic cheers she received during a tour to South America in 2010 with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, which showcased local talent in classical music.

"I was thrilled and felt genuinely a cultural ambassador of Hong Kong in front of the passionate audiences who were really cheering for us," she said.

But she says Hong Kong audiences tend to offer a warmer reception to pop singers than classical musicians.

"During school visits, teachers told me that there were music classes for students, but they had little interest in serious music and found it boring," she said.

She said the relative lack of interest was puzzling, given the high fees parents pay for tuition. She said interest tended to dissipate after the students took their piano exam or took part in a music festival. "I was shocked to learn a student would get extra school marks for taking part in a music festival. That's not really a good way to share the joy of arts with the young," she said.

Hong Kong is among the world's most expensive places to teach children music. "A piano student at the HKAPA can charge HK$800 an hour, and a teacher can go from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000," said Lee, who studied in Germany after graduating from the academy in 2003. "But in Europe, a renowned piano professor charges €100-€200 [HK$840-HK$1,680] an hour, and a competent pianist just €50."

Having performed at New York's Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Lee is optimistic that Hong Kong can eventually hold its own as long as classical concerts attract the young. "Whether they come of their own free will or not, seeing so many young people in the hall is a source of hope," she said.