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Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

by Suzanne Yanko

There was a time when the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was as familiar to me as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is now. That time was around 2000 and, as this was the most important orchestra in Hong Kong, the classical broadcast station I worked for sent a team along to almost every concert. So it was with interest that I settled in for this rare opportunity to hear this ensemble again. (It goes without saying that Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is a far more ambient space than a cramped broadcast booth shared with a producer, my Chinese-language colleague and one or two techs!)

As they filed onto the stage the first thing I noticed was the international look of the orchestra, with the brass section in particular having gleaned (male) players from Europe. Perhaps I remembered things differently but in the past the HKPO had the look of a local ensemble, apart from the odd Australian or British player. Ironically, the orchestra was in Australia as part of an ambitious five-city international tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden the interest was of course in the sound, not the ethnic make-up of the group. Having said that, the first item Quintessence was by a Chinese composer, Fung Lam, the first Hong Kong composer to being commissioned by the BBC.

 Quintessence began with a sharp snap of percussion and busy strings then a shimmer of instruments including bells – music that at first appeared to evoke New York streets. But why New York? This was equally a recreation of Hong Kong’s frenetic and varied moods. With van Zweden driving the action the orchestra was a tight ensemble but there was some fine individual and section playing too. The harp was in tandem with lush strings for the most part, creating oddly ominous sounds in the background before the work exploded like a firecracker. It was exciting music, comparable to American music of the 1920s in its instrumentation, and not self-consciously Chinese. This was music for the world, played by a world orchestra.

Mozart has always been a popular choice for classical music lovers in Hong Kong so it was not surprising that the concerto was the violin concerto number four in D, K218 by the revered Viennese composer. The soloist was Ning Feng, an established artist with an international profile – and a 1721 Stradivarius. With the concerto seeming to express the essence of Mozart – repeated notes, arpeggios, and self-conscious phrasing – this was bound to be a highlight of the concert. Evidently the violinist had performed before with the conductor and it was a happy partnership, supported by the orchestra with its light touch. Feng’s cadenza was respectful of what went before with a few virtuosic touches. As I recalled from Hong Kong days, there was a lot of clapping after the first movement! The second movement relied on the soloist for quite a lilting feel at times even a yearning. There was a depth of feeling that brought forward more clapping although the conductor tried without success to head it off. Finally the third movement was not as well known but, despite a little uncertainty about tempo, it was a smooth performance, if not the most exciting part of the concert.

That was to come with the Mahler. His FIrst Symphony had many of the characteristics that would later identify the composer’s work – but the surprised contemporary critics were reportedly baffled by it. There was no such problem in the Melbourne Recital Centre, thanks to the confidence of the conductor and the tightness of the orchestra. The Bohemian origins of the work were more than hinted at in the first movement, the hunting horn above the low string sound. When the upper strings joined in the HKPO asserted its right to be called a major symphony orchestra, (if that were not already evident!).

The trumpet was insistent its smooth voice above the rather florid strings. Australian Meg Sterling’s lovely flute was heard above the mellow brass as the folk dance was recreated. Indeed, the brass was in particularly good form, responding to Jaap’s dancing style as he drew out a loud joyous sound from the orchestra. The winds dominated the next move part of the music with a lightness about the sound that recalled a ballroom waltz.

After all this dancing in the second movement, there was a long pause (following Mahler’s specific instructions), the drumbeat suggesting a funeral march, solemn and slow, joined gradually by the upper strings. The mood was tentative as it moved to a chorale, beautifully and convincingly supported by the background of the rhythm. The flute led to a reprise of the funeral march swinging to a carnival sound with an increase in tempo and falling back again.

The final movement brought a clash of cymbals, with brass to the fore, joined by the strings. With such complexity and denseness in composition, the conductor’s role was vital – and of course van Zveden did not disappoint, shaping every nuance and leading the orchestra to a positive conclusion from which there was no turning back. The audience followed the buildup of sound with bated breath before finally bursting into delighted applause, your reviewer enthusiastically joining in.



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Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

by Suzanne Yanko

What’s it like to be part of an overseas orchestra, as many Australians are? Now Principal Flautist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Meg Sterling grew up in Shepparton in country Victoria. She says life was all about football, not music, but she was actively encouraged by her parents who drove her to Melbourne for regular lessons, music camps and competitions.

Deborah Humble (herself in Hong Kong to sing with the HKPO’s performance and recordings of Wagner’s Ring) caught up with Meg during recent performances of Siegfried and asked her about life in Asia as well as her thoughts on performing Wagner for the fist time.

DH Can you give me some background information on your music education in Victoria and how you came to be appointed to the Hong Kong Philharmonic?

MS When I was in high school I was lucky enough to be sent to Berlin, Germany, on a student exchange. By chance I ended up with a fabulous teacher, who was a flautist with the Deutsche Oper. (Imagine my joy and surprise to learn that the Guest Principal Horn for the HKPhil Siegfried project – on loan from the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra – was the son of this very same flute teacher!) The year in Germany really opened my eyes to the world of classical music. I heard opera live for the first time, and attended many concerts.

After returning to Australia I completed high school, started a course at Melbourne University, took a couple of years off playing, lived in London for a year to get some perspective on life, then returned to Australia to complete a music degree at the Canberra School of Music. After working with the various orchestras in Australia, I was awarded a position with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

After a year in Wellington, I saw the Principal Flute position with the HK Philharmonic Orchestra advertised. This international audition was held in various major cities in Europe and the US, as well as HK. I flew to HK from NZ and was subsequently offered the job.

DH When did you arrive in Hong Kong and how did you find life when you first got here? Can you comment on the cultural differences? What are the biggest advantages/challenges of life in this city?

MS I arrived in Hong Kong in August 2002. HK is constantly changing; so many parts of the city have changed since I arrived. HK is a vibrant, international city, so it is very easy to live here. It is extremely easy to navigate, the food is fantastic, things work efficiently and well. It is possible to live either a life of luxury, or to live inexpensively and simply. So many people living so closely together makes HK people private and protective of personal space. But it also breeds a high level of tolerance. Hong Kong people are very peaceful and non-confrontational, and I feel very safe living here.

Because I do not speak Cantonese I often feel “on the outside”. But there are many – including those from mainland China – who also do not speak Cantonese. Mostly it is not a significant problem as English is widely used, although I still feel guilty for not having made the effort. The main problem for me is that my daughter is in local Chinese school, and I do not really have any idea what she does for schoolwork.

DH The orchestra is a very diverse and multi-cultural group. Does this have an impact on the way music is made?

MS The HK Philharmonic is a very multi-cultural orchestra, made up of instrumentalists from many different nationalities: Chinese, Japanese, American, British, Australian, French, Polish, Spanish, Georgian and a few members born in Hong Kong. This is typical of many top-level orchestras as auditions are held worldwide and draw from an international pool of players to attract candidates of the highest level.

Many of the players of Asian background are actually from America or Europe; Chinese-American, Korean-American, or they have studied abroad from a young age. The official language of the orchestra is English. There is a very good feeling in the orchestra and everyone is very friendly and gets along well. It is always a compliment when visiting musicians comment on how welcoming and friendly the atmosphere is.

DH How has the orchestra changed in the time you have been playing? How have things developed under maestro Jaap van Zweden?

MS The organisation has become more unified and ensemble skills are tighter. Jaap demands a high level of discipline, which brings focus to rehearsals and concerts. His background as a top-level violinist and orchestral musician means he can make specific technical demands of the string players. Considering that an “orchestral sound” is mostly strings, this helps a lot!

Management staff have become more experienced and more experienced staff members have been engaged. This allows the orchestra to function smoothly and allows the musicians to focus on the performance side of things.

DH This Ring Cycle is a mammoth undertaking. How did the orchestra react when they first heard they would be learning 16 hours of Wagner? How has the learning process been? Are you playing with a greater understanding of this music now than you did at the start of Das Rheingold?

MS I think generally the orchestra was excited at the prospect of playing the Ring cycle – although nobody really understood what was involved until we began! For me, the most surprising aspect has been the level of mental discipline required. We need to sit for a long time, often without playing very much; it takes a lot of focus to stay “in the music”, and to sustain the level of concentration required for a performance of four, five or six hours.

DH What does it feel like to be part of such massive musical forces? Are you enjoying this music? What are your personal thoughts about it? Is it different because you have to ‘accompany’ singers for a large part of it?

MS It is a fantastic feeling to be a part of such a huge production. Wagner’s music is incredibly exciting. It has great momentum and powerful dramatic thrust, but also moments of transparency in which you find you are the only one playing! It takes a lot of concentration to process everything that is happening on the stage; the technical and musical demands of the part, directing within the section, coordinating across the orchestra and with the soloists, and ultimately staying locked in with the conductor.

It is particularly thrilling to be at such close range with the singers. To cultivate the voice so that it carries over one hundred instruments or more is an astounding feat of humanity.

DH What are your musical and professional plans for the future?

I have an 8-year old daughter in primary school. I feel very lucky that she has the chance to grow up in a place which is safe, where she can develop fluency in at least two foreign languages, and in a society which is kind and nurturing towards children. I love my colleagues in the HKPhil – it is a wonderful orchestra – and students are very receptive and earnest so I enjoy teaching as well. I try to maintain contact with Australia where I can, and it is nice to know that HK is not too far away.

Classic Melbourne’s editor, Suzanne Yanko, had a lot of contact with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra when working as a broadcaster for Hong Kong Radio Television’s Radio 4 in the early 2000s. The orchestra’s visit to Melbourne brought back happy memories, but what if anything had changed? ….

Melbourne is blessed with its own fine orchestras but visitors from an overseas symphony orchestra are always welcome. This week the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra comes to town and will both bring back memories for some, and introduce others to an orchestra with a history and a future, thanks to its core position in Hong Kong’s cultural life.

The CEO, Michael McLeod, claims it is “by far the leading arts organisation in Hong Kong” He traces the history of the orchestra to an amateur ensemble in the 1890s. It performed under its current name since the 1950s and became fully professional in 1974. For years it has been a cultural ambassador for Hong Kong, this year marking the 20th anniversary of the “handover” to China.

The HKPO has an active program of community engagement and the school visits are an important feature of its work. The program chosen for this tour reflects its wide capabilities: Mozart (a Hong Kong favourite!), Mahler’s first Symphony, and a “ravishing” piece by contemporary composer Fung Lam.

On this tour, the orchestra is also proud to show off its conductor Jaap van Zweden, who at 19 was the youngest ever Concertgebouw concertmaster. Now a regular guest conductor with leading orchestras around the world, he has recently made his debuts with both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. He is also the current Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Van Zweden became Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2012 and has recently announced that he will continue in this role until at least summer 2022. Exciting news recently was that he has been appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from the 2018/19 season.

In recent years a landmark achievement of Van Zweden and the HKPO has been the performance and recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Hong Kong, the first orchestra in the region to tackle this great production. The performances are of particular interest to Australia for the involvement of mezzo Deborah Humble as Erda, reprising her role in the first Melbourne Ring of 2013.

McLeod approves of this sharing of musical talent in orchestras across the world, just as he says it’s important for an orchestra to tour. “It moves your game up a notch, and makes you play better”, he says. Audiences in Australia look forward to the opportunity to hear the truth of that for themselves when the orchestra gives its two concerts, one in Sydney, the other in Melbourne on Thursday night.

For more information and tickets in Melbourne visit the Arts Centre website.


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