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HK Phil

‘The show must go on’ – Steven Chan, ‘Mr Fixit’ of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years … and counting

As city’s top orchestra turns 45, long-serving stage manager recalls memorable times – and challenges when air conditioners failed with only minutes to go

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 8:26pm

None of us enjoys the long wait to pick up our bags at the airport, but Steven Chan – whose job involves having to collect up to 80 cases each time – has things worse than most of us.

Chan, the stage manager for the past 40 years of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil) – the city’s leading orchestra – is responsible for dealing with the logistical problems of transporting the musicians’ assorted instruments whenever it is on tour.

We never used to perform on a big stage and there were limitations as to the range of music we could play. But as time has gone by, we have been playing an increasingly sophisticated repertoire
Steven Chan, stage manager, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

It is always a taxing, time-consuming process for him.

He has to wait for customs officials to go through the bundle of official documents and inspect the assorted flight cases used for storing all the various instruments – from more manageable violins and violas, trumpets and trombones to heftier pieces such as cellos, double basses, tubas and even a harp – as well as answering the occasional question or two.

“Do you want to know what instruments we brought on our Asia tour last year?” he says with a look of pride at having successfully navigated his way through the various obstacles that were placed before him.

A new line-up and a star conductor: HK Phil turns 45

That trip – organised to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and backed by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices saw the orchestra, which celebrates its 45th birthday this year, perform in Seoul, Osaka, Melbourne and Sydney, as well as Hong Kong.

Proud to watch as orchestra grows

In the years since he started work with the orchestra in 1978, Chan has watched the organisation’s steady growth and artistic development.

“When I first came there were just over 70 musicians; we now have 96,” he says.

“Back then, we had three players in each woodwind section; we now have four.”

The orchestra’s move in 1989 into the Hong Kong Cultural Centre – opposite the city’s iconic hotel, The Peninsula Hong Kong – next to Victoria Harbour, was one of its major milestones.

“We never used to perform on a big stage and there were limitations as to the range of music we could play,” Chan says.

“But as time has gone by, we have been playing an increasing and more sophisticated repertoire.”

One of Chan’s most unforgettable experiences was at the orchestra’s recent performance of Ring Cycle, a powerful 18-hour operatic story of gods and humans, written by Richard Wagner.

To this day, the HK Phil remains the only orchestra in Hong Kong to have performed the full set of this four-part epic by the venerable German composer.

It performed one part of the opera each year, starting in 2015 – giving two performances each time – with the fourth and final part of the opera staged in January 2018.

Performing Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle was a huge production. We had a very big orchestra with around 110 musicians. We were able to do it because – [having secured sponsorship] – we had the budget
Steven Chan

“It was a huge production,” Chan says. “We had a very big orchestra with around 110 musicians. We were able to do it because – [having secured sponsorship] – we had the budget.”

Unlike the HK Phil’s regular concerts, which are held on Fridays and Saturdays, the orchestra’s Ring Cycle was performed on a Thursday and a Sunday because both the performers and the stage crew needed a break after the intensity of the first performance.

To prepare for the shows, Chan had to find a rare instrument called a Wagner tuba, which actually belongs to the horn family, and also make changes to the normal stage set-up since the performances featured opera singers and additional musicians.

Career part of orchestra’s musical journey

As stage manager, Chan works behind the scenes to ensure that things run smoothly – not only before and after performances, but also onstage and backstage during concerts, including regularly monitoring the lighting.

While the orchestra rolls out a new season every September, his planning for the concerts starts many months before.

Once Chan has received the performance schedule for the coming year, he works out the set-ups for different pieces of music. But his preparations go far beyond the technical side of things because Chan also has to attend to the needs of each member of the orchestra.

Hong Kong Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden takes stock, looks ahead to Wagner cycle, possible new role

Some musicians, for example, will ask him to ensure that their chairs are set higher off the ground, while others prefer to sit lower.

Conductors have their preferences, too. Chan says he used to have to place a small electric fan close to one former conductor because he dreaded the heat during rehearsals and performances.

“I can still remember all their particular needs and requests,” says Chan, as his face breaks into a smile.

A lot of advanced work goes into the preparation of tours outside Hong Kong.

I love working with the people at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s pure joy to be able to work with one’s friends day in, day out
Steven Chan

Weeks before the orchestra’s departure, Chan carefully measures the dimensions of all the flight cases and works out how to pack them inside air cargo containers to ensure the instruments have maximum protection.

“I love going on tour but it’s hard work,” Chan says as he recalls the orchestra’s European tour of 2015.

‘The show must go on’

“When we arrived at the concert hall in Berlin, the stage crew there were preoccupied and unable to help us set up the stage,” he says.

“We had only two hours before the show started. My assistant had to unpack the flight cases one by one, while I had to bring 70 music stands stored backstage out onto the stage.

“The stands were much heavier than the ones we’ve got here in Hong Kong, so I could take only one at a time: I was left ‘half-dead’ afterwards!”

Chan’s 40 years of working with the orchestra have not been without the occasional hiccup or harrowing experience.

[When the air conditioning failed] before a concert we put in big electric fans. It still ended up very hot. But everyone toughed it out. As the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’
Steven Chan

He says once a musician vomited during the first half of a performance, while on another occasion in the 1990s, the air conditioning inside the Cultural Centre broke down.

“The repairmen were trying very hard to get it fixed, but it seemed like a lost cause,” Chan says.

“The show was set to start very soon at 8pm.

“In the end we decided to put big electric fans in the concert hall in places where the wind would not affect the sound quality.

“It still ended up being very hot. But everyone toughed it out. As the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’.”

‘My job is a dream come true’

Chan says he has stayed working with the orchestra all these years because he enjoys every moment of his job.

“I’ve always wanted to work in an orchestra,” he says.

“I’m surrounded by good music and going to free concerts every day, performed by accomplished artists. It’s a dream come true.”

He says he is really looking forward to being reunited with the orchestra’s former music directors, including Dutchman Edo de Waart and Englishman David Atherton, both of whom will be returning to celebrate its 45th anniversary.

De Waart will be conducting the orchestra this Friday and Saturday, while Atherton is set to be back next June.

“I love working with the people here,” Chan says. “It’s pure joy to be able to work with one’s friends day in, day out.”