Staging intimate classical performances

Andrew Freris is an economist who has worked as a professor at universities in London and Hong Kong. He now works at investment bank BNP Paribas. In 1984 he and his wife Anabella set up The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, of which Freris is chairman. Almost 20 years on, the society holds public performances, an annual festival, a triennial competition and free yearly master classes. Here Freris explains the ethos behind the society – and why he believes the audience is just as important as the performer.

I’ve been a keen music lover since I was a student in London during the pop revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I also loved classical music, but when I married Anabella, a gifted amateur pianist and now executive secretary of the society, I began to listen to classical music voraciously.

Chopin played in our London Belgravia home in 1848, inspired by this history – and our love of salon soirées where we could share music and some good food among friends – we set up something similar when we moved to Hong Kong in 1984.

Our friends Teresa Li-Lai, now vice chairwoman of the society, and her husband Jimmy Lai offered us their home. The format for the salons then is the same as now: no more than 100 guests sitting close to the piano, though not in rows, so as not to break the barrier between the pianist and the audience, and a carefully structured programme featuring no long sonatas (but also no two-minute bonbons) designed to tell a story or develop a theme.

Anabella and I distrust competitions in general, because we feel they end up as musical races whose winners tend to disappear without a trace

The salons caught on like wild fire and we started to attract sponsors. Soon we moved the salons to their permanent home, the magnificent small ballroom of The Peninsula hotel, and began our relationship with the Kadoorie family, and their associated companies, who became our key sponsors. Most of the time the society has been as poor as a church mouse and so we have a tiny personnel and maximum expenditures on the product with total emphasis on quality.

As the events grew more popular, we decided to add public recitals. It was during these events that we hit on the idea of our ‘winners series’. We reasoned that first prize winners of major international piano competitions were bound to be good, inexpensive (because they were at the start of their careers) and hungry to play.

The series remains one of our most popular events and has brought over 35 first prize winners from competitions including the Santander International Piano Competition and the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

We have also developed the triennial Hong Kong International Piano Competition, which ran in 2005, 2008, 2011 and will run next from 10th-27th October 2014.

Anabella and I distrust competitions in general, because we feel they end up as musical races whose winners tend to disappear without a trace. So we decided to do it differently: with Vladimir Ashkenazy as our chairman, we have an international jury that is second to none.

Members of the jury perform at the event and we diffuse the competitive element by turning the competition into an annual Joy of Music Festival, which runs annually each October. This means that in the two years between each competition we can bring back the first prize winners to perform, as well as members of the jury and world-class artists.

As well as our salons, public events, competition and festival, we also offer an extensive educational programme based around free annual master classes, which are attended by hundreds of audience members and scores of carefully chosen advanced students from Hong Kong, China and various Asian countries. The society also has its own recording label, Alpha Omega Sound. All of the society’s activities are designed to promote the pleasure of music and break down the barriers between performers and audiences.

We believe the audience is as important as the performer. We need to remember that music is a dialogue, not a monologue. Good performers sense their audience all the time, feel their reactions and get encouraged or discouraged accordingly.

But audiences are often made to feel they should sit at the feet of gods and listen. I don’t – I listen and fidget, fret, feel frustrated, feel elated, learn things and hope that the performer feels my presence every minute.

I don’t believe that you should approach the audience saying, ‘the following is difficult and harsh. Persevere, it’s good for you.’ Music is fun, not a learning process.

This is because, for me at least, music is simply music and not a division of pop, folk, jazz or classical.

Good music played well pierces the heart, whilst bad music – meaning music that does not communicate and does not pass the test of time and culture – can be played well and still won’t do the trick.

I don’t believe that you should approach the audience saying, ‘the following is difficult and harsh. Persevere, it’s good for you.’ Music is fun, not a learning process.

At the society, we do not believe in crossover as a way to attract audience to classical music. That approach begins with the notion that classical music is difficult and needs to be taken with a lump of sugar.

Instead we diversify our programme. We never talk down to the audience. We don’t force our artists to play what we think is interesting, but encourage them to play what they have always wanted to play – but couldn’t because everyone else was asking them to play pieces from the old canon.

It has worked brilliantly because our artists play as if their lives depended on it. Slowly our performers are taking more personal risks, not in playing ‘difficult’ pieces, but in understanding the risk and rewards of communicating material which they have not made talk before.

There is no shortage of those who claim Hong Kong is a cultural wasteland and that they will save it by injecting a dose of culture. Having been at it for over 19 years, we know only too well that there is an enormous amount of good music played in Hong Kong by good and dedicated artists.

Our task is to add and build on that. We’re excited about the future.

Our recording programme has included, among others, a two piano and two cello version of The Rite of the Spring, more recordings of our existing three first prize winners and other selected pianists including our series: ‘Following the development of an artist’.

Our funding still depends on our generous private sponsors and on the Hong Kong government, which has been extremely supportive of all our activities.

Competition will always be there but the best response is to treat the audience seriously by consistently presenting quality artists. Insistence on quality can hurt, it can be frustrating, and may not work out in the short or medium run, yet the benefits are there for all to see in the long run.

We’ve survived  despite financial pressures and this is precisely because our main sponsors – and Hong Kong government officials in particular – can recognise quality programming when they see it, and can appreciate its presentation by an inexpensive organisation.

Just like in any commercial organisation, we keep our labour costs down and instead spend the money where it counts, on artists we know are good. There is no compromise. Whether we like it or not, classical music is a business and people and organisations that don’t treat it as such just die.

First published in issue 9: volume 15 of International Arts Manager.