Tributes to maestro behind Hong Kong’s first professional orchestra

Lim Kek-tjiang transformed the Philharmonic in the 1970s by bringing passion and excitement

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 10:55pm

Tributes have been paid to the conductor who played a key role in establishing the Hong Kong Philharmonic as a professional orchestra in 1974.

Lim Kek-tjiang, who had suffered from diabetes for years, died on Thursday morning at his Melbourne home aged 89. He is survived by two sons.

“Maestro Lim took the painstaking first step to bring about Hong Kong’s first professional orchestra that we are all proud of today,” said Fan Ting, Lim’s student from 1972 to 1975 and now principal of the Phil’s second violin section.

Chow Fan-fu, author and biographer of the orchestra, concurred. “Without Lim’s inspiration and hard work, we would not have had a professional orchestra in 1974.”

Born in Borneo when it was under Dutch control, Lim was the oldest of four brothers, all renowned musicians. He studied violin on a scholarship at the Amsterdam Conservatory and under the legendary violinist George Enescu in Paris, where he was also taught conducting by Eugene Bigot.

He returned to Jakarta in 1956 and became conductor of its radio symphony orchestra. Three years later he arrived in Beijing to lead the radio orchestra.

Lim made his debut with the flagship Central Philharmonic in 1961 as a violinist and as conductor a year later. He was sidelined during the Cultural Revolution and allowed to leave for Hong Kong via Macau in 1968.

In 1969 Lim was named music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and arranged a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata – the first step in preparations for it to become a professional orchestra in 1974.

“The exciting way he made music was something no one encountered before, and that I think was how the board was convinced to give him the mandate to move forward,” Chow recalled.

Darwin Chen Tat-man, director of cultural services in the 1970s, remembered Lim for his high artistic demand, which made a difference but came at a price.

“Lim had the temperament of an artist who wanted the best, but that’s not to everyone’s liking,” he said.

“His wide repertoire, from Tchaikovsky to modern Chinese works such as the White-haired Girl and Long March Symphony, left an important mark in the city’s music culture.”

Lim and his family settled in Australia in 1976 and he recorded regularly with orchestras in Japan, including the best-seller Butterfly Lovers violin concerto with Hong Kong-based violinist Takako Nishizaki.

His guest conducting took him to Beijing and Shanghai, and in 2002 he founded the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra in Taiwan, having recorded previously with the New Russian Philharmonic in Moscow.

Fan, Lim’s former student, lamented that his mentor was everywhere but Hong Kong.

“It’s regrettable he did not get an opportunity to work with us again in the last 20 to 30 years of his life, which he as the founder deserved, but it’s all too late now,” he said.