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Classical music

London's Southbank Sinfonia chooses Hong Kong for its overseas debut

Orchestra comprising the pick of recent global music college graduates will accompany acclaimed Chinese violin soloist Ning Feng in concert it hopes will raise ensemble's profile in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 5:53pm

Virtuoso violinist Ning Feng's name is usually enough to fill a Hong Kong concert hall, but an equally potent attraction for his appearance on Monday September 21 at City Hall is the visiting Southbank Sinfonia in a programme of works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

This acclaimed ensemble is making not only its Hong Kong debut, but also its first concert appearance outside Europe. Founded in 2002 by music director Simon Over, Southbank Sinfonia was established to give outstanding young musicians the opportunity to work in a stable professional orchestra for a year after graduation before moving on to positions elsewhere.

Each year the orchestra assembles 33 young players of unusual distinction, who are then immersed in an intensive nine-month programme of rehearsals and performances. The music they perform ranges from baroque to jazz, taking in all eras of classical music from the past 400 years, including opera.

WATCH Southbank Sinfonia play the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40

The Southbank Sinfonia is renowned for both the passion and accomplishments its young players bring to their repertoire, but it had an unlikely beginning. The whole venture resulted from Over encouraging politicians to sing.

"I worked in the music department of Westminster Abbey for 10 years, and while there, formed the Parliament Choir comprising members of the House of Commons, peers and staff of the Palace of Westminster. The choir needed an orchestra, so I fixed [up some] of the players currently at a music college.

"They were all about to leave and none of them had jobs to go to. I realised then just how precarious it is having been training for 10-15 years, if there are no jobs available at the critical moment. Excellent young players are sometimes forced to give up. That struck me as tragic and I wanted to do something about it."

Together with the parents of two of his Westminster Abbey choristers, Over founded Southbank Sinfonia.

"Initially, we simply hoped to provide repertoire experience and to sustain the players at that critical time," he recalls. "But when you bring together such dynamic and skilful players from all around the world, you effectively have a crucible with endless possibilities. In the course of a year there is a huge variety of activities for the players - orchestrally each week is a different project."

One week, he explains, the musicians might be playing alongside the world-famous Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the next playing early music on authentic instruments, following that with a a jazz project with Guy Barker, then learning about broadcast performance, playing side by side with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Other partner organisations include the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the London Handel Festival, and the National Theatre. A particularly memorable project with the National Theatre, Over says, was a revival of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour - a 1977 play written by Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn in which a full symphony orchestra functions alongside the actors as a part of the cast.

"We worked on it with Stoppard and Previn for two months, then did 71 sold-out performances on the revolving stage at the National Theatre. It was electrifying and fascinating. In the 21st century, orchestral players need to be ready to do anything, and this was great preparation for that," he says.

Over is no stranger to Hong Kong audiences, having conducted the City Chamber Orchestra, and last year [2014] the Academy Opera's The Marriage of Figaro at the Academy for Performing Arts.

"I first went to Hong Kong to conduct the City Chamber Orchestra. I took [baritone] Sir Thomas Allen and for the next visit [soprano] Dame Emma Kirkby. When I asked which Knight of the Realm they would like next, they requested Dame Edna Everage," he recalls.

Over delivered, turning up in 2012 with Barry Humphries as Dame Edna to narrate Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, which led directly to the APA engagement, which in turn led to an invitation to bring out Southbank Sinfonia.

"While I was in Hong Kong for The Marriage of Figaro, Peter Thompson and Helmut Sohmen, both of whom are ardent champions of classical music, suggested we take Southbank Sinfonia there," he says. Other Southbank Sinfonia supporters in Hong Kong are Jenny Hodgson and Robbie Brothers as well EFG Bank.

This will be Southbank Sinfonia's first collaboration with Ning, and Over says he and the orchestra are very much looking forward to it.

"I admire his playing greatly, and the Southern Sinfonia in New Zealand, of which I'm the principal guest conductor, worked with him a few years ago. They told me that he is as delightful as he is brilliant," he says.

It is exciting to think that in Hong Kong we might meet young players who could assume a place in our orchestra
Simon Over

Born in Chengdu but now based in Berlin, Ning is a star international soloist but plays as often as he can in China. His last concert in Hong Kong was in March 2015, when he performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major with Jaap Van Zweden conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Southbank Sinfonia's programme comprises Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Beethoven's Romance No 1Romance No 2 and Symphony No 7.

"We chose Mendelssohn because it's so vibrant and perfect for young musicians. Our whole programme is devised to suit the young players' incredible vitality," says Over.

One notable alumnus of the orchestra has gone on to a musical career in Hong Kong. "Michael Wilson since leaving us has been principal oboe of the Hong Kong Philharmonic," says Over. "He speaks very highly of the benefits Southbank Sinfonia gave him to prepare him for this job, and he is going to join us at the APA as we present Southbank Sinfonia to the players there.

"It is exciting to think that in Hong Kong we might meet young players who could assume a place in our orchestra and one day go on to great feats like Michael."

Although Over is keen to encourage applications to Southbank Sinfonia, he acknowledges that competition for orchestra places is stiff.

"We have about 500 applications for 33 places each year. However, two bursaries each year are set aside specifically to fund Asian players. In order for the best Asian players to win those bursaries, we need to be known. So this mini tour will - we hope - let young musicians currently in Hong Kong know about Southbank Sinfonia, and if that is successful, we would be very keen to extend the reach to other parts of Asia," he says.

"We have players come every year from all corners of the globe ... as one who is passionate about Asian culture, I'm very keen that Asia is well represented. When I was conducting Figaro last year, my impression was that there is a huge wealth of highly trained and skilful, passionate players [in Hong Kong]. They, like every recent graduate, need the sort of opportunities Southbank Sinfonia has to offer to modulate into successful professionals."

Over is confident that the combination of his young players and Ning Feng, himself a relatively youthful 33, will provide an evening to remember. "We hope everyone who comes to the concert at City Hall will agree it's uplifting and exciting to see young people invest fresh energy and resonance in music from two centuries ago," he says. "You'll feel assured that the future of classical music is in safe hands."

Ning Feng and Southbank Sinfonia, 8pm, Sept 21, City Hall Concert Hall, Central, HK$120-HK$320, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2921 2840