Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hong Kong Philharmonic

Among the many high calibre orchestras of the world, the history of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra holds a unique place in the story of its evolution.

The orchestra began as an amateur group in the 1960’s, its members truly a reflection of the ethnic diversity of Hong Kong. Other than a few double-bass players of Filipino origin, the string section of the orchestra was made up mostly of Chinese players. The wind and brass section consisted of members of the British police and military bands. The group, led by an Italian conductor, one Professor Foa, gave occasion performances in the newly opened City Hall concert hall. I would guess that there was a great deal of flux among members of the orchestra, as well as the standard of music making.

In 1974, the orchestra gave its inaugural concert as a professional ensemble. Its first music director was an Indonesian-Chinese violinist / conductor Lim Kek-Tjiang, who had studied violin with the legendary Georges Enesco. The orchestra played a total of ten programmes during the year of its inception.

I have memories of hearing the orchestra shortly during those heady days, and what struck me was that the musicians played with great fire and enthusiasm, but the sound was often rather rough. I do remember a very memorable concert with a very young Itzhak Perlman, playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concerti in one evening. The ovation from the audience led Perlman to play two Paganini Caprices as encores. Moreover, the orchestra was never shy to tackle the major works from the canon of western symphonic literature. In the 1976 – 1977 season, the orchestra ventured into the world of opera, presenting Smetana’s The Bartered Bride as its first efforts. All in all, it was not a bad beginning for the sometimes fledging ensemble.

Since its founding, the orchestra has had its ups and downs. Conductors came and went; some boosted morale among players and brought the orchestra to a higher level of excellence, others having the opposite effect on the orchestra. The orchestra’s standards must have been helped also by the constant influx of great orchestras and conductors visiting Hong Kong. Ever since 1973, the Hong Kong Arts Festival has brought to the city most of the world’s greatest orchestras. During the weeks of the Festival, and throughout the year, the orchestra would find itself playing alongside orchestras such as the London Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, to name just a few. I would guess that such competition would only breed excellence.

I next heard the orchestra in June of 1989, shortly after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in China. The city, still under British administration, saw the true face of its future Chinese masters, and was in somewhat of a state of crisis. I do remember the programme from the two concerts I attended, under then music director Kenneth Schermerhorn – Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Mahler’s 5th symphony, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. The coincidence of having the Shostakovich was certainly ironic, since the piece was written during the height of the Stalinist terror, when the composer was trying to redeem himself in the dictator’s eyes. The soloist for the piano concerti was Jon Kimura Parker, fresh from his win at the Leeds Piano Competition. What stunned me was how much the orchestra had improved after only a dozen years, from the tightness of its ensemble, to the sheer sound of the orchestra.

I believe the orchestra began its rise to its current level of prominence with the arrival of the two recent music directors – David Atherton and Edo de Waart. I had heard the orchestra on two more occasions, a concert conducted by Atherton and the other by Gianluigi Gelmetti (but during the tenure of Edo de Waart). In both instances, the musicians gave performances that could stand alongside those given by any world class orchestra.

There are those who criticize the Hong Kong Philharmonic for relying too much on “overseas” talents, and not drawing upon the pool of local (read Chinese) musicians. To that rather narrow view I would only say that Hong Kong is an international city, and any orchestra nowadays would try to attract musicians from all over the world, regardless of their ethnicity. The Hong Kong Philharmonic is no different from any other orchestra in that it tries to get the best musician to fill every available position.

The rapid growth of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, benefited from the British administration’s commitment to promoting culture. The former government of Hong Kong, in the form of the Urban Council, devoted much of its resources to making various forms of culture accessible to its citizens. Because of this, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has always been able to recruit the services of very high calibre orchestral musicians, soloists and conductors.

At this point, the future of Hong Kong is uncertain. China’s dictators, acting through Hong Kong’s rubber-stamp government, is determined to destroy Hong Kong’s unique identity as well as its social fabric, and to quell its people’s independent spirit. Under such a political climate, I can only pray that the city’s role as one of the world’s cultural capitals can and will remain strong, and that culture will not be a victim of China’s attempts at making Hong Kong part of its monolith.

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