Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra seeks new composers

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO) has set itself the goal of creating a whole new generation of composers and conductors, versed in the intricacies of Chinese instruments.
Celina Chin
Celina Chin

HKCO has a well-earned reputation for commissioning new works. In fact, it has made it its mission to create a full repertoire for Chinese orchestras.

And it is already delivering: more than 2,300 new works sit in the archives from the numerous composition competitions and commissions held since the orchestra began in 1977.

But all that pales in comparison with its latest project, a two-year scheme to take Chinese orchestral composition techniques to the wider world. Chinese Music Without Bounds began on 28 February 2016, with the aim of sharing strategies, ideas and advice on how to best make use of the unique sound, style and strength of a Chinese-instrument powered ensemble, ahead of the next composition call for entries later this year.

‘The first part of Chinese Music without Bounds came to a close on 1 March with the Music about China concert at Hong Kong City Hall on 27 February, as part of Hong Kong Arts Festival,’ says HKCO executive director Celina Chin. ‘Altogether, there were six sessions in the series spread over a total of 17 hours of workshops. 20 music scholars, composers and critics came as speakers or hosts of the various sessions. Participants from 13 different countries including students, composers and musicians enrolled for the symposium.

‘The event was warmly received by the participants. The feedback we got from the composers was that none had been to an orchestration forum that was so informative, as well as practical. Everyone commented that they were “pampered” by the luxury of having a full professional orchestra on hand to demonstrate various technical topics live in the rehearsal space.

HKCO musicians
HKCO musicians

The problem, of course, is that most Western composers are completely unfamiliar with the Chinese instruments such as the huqin, erhu and gehu.

‘Errors comes down to a lack of study in each instrument, and making the assumption that the Chinese instruments are the same as Western instruments,’ says Chiat. ‘As a result, there is no geographical wider base of knowledge to support effective instrumentation and orchestration of Chinese repertoire. The most common problem, although not exclusive, is writing notes that exist outside of the usual range of a particular instrument. For example, writing a middle C for erhu. Another common problem is writing a passage that is completely unplayable for the instruments. For example ad hoc double stops for huqin, which simply can’t be done.

‘Generally, Western composers do not understand the psychology of the musicians. Contrary to European values, at HKCO, we believe that constantly pushing musicians to the very edge of their playing limitations will result in performance fatigue, which will always ruin the artistic expression of the music.’

With the first stage of the composition project completed, the CEO is now looking to the future.

‘The next stage is the composition competition itself,’ says Chin. ‘We have already noted that many composers are preparing their pieces for submission, with the deadline for submission scheduled for 31 October. ‘In the meantime we have the 3rd International Competition for Chinese Music Conducting co-presented by HKCO.

‘We were very excited to have conductors from European countries like Italy and Poland at the last edition, with Sebastian Petrovski from Poland winning the Special Award. We hope to see more and more non-Chinese young conductors entering the competition this year.’

The orchestra also has some big touring plans, as Chin elaborates: ‘HKCO will participate at Sochi Winter Festival in Feb 2017, for which maestro Yuri Bashmet and maestro Yan Huichang are working together on some innovative programmes, which will be amazing. ‘In addition our ensemble will also collaborate with Moscow Soloists Chamber Ensemble to showcase various music pieces ranging from traditional to contemporary pieces. New works from Russian composers and Chinese composers will also be premiered.’

Other tour plans include trips to China and other parts of Asia, although the details have yet to be confirmed. I wonder what the orchestra does for homegrown young composers – how do they create the next generation of composition competition entrants?

‘HKCO organises extensive activities for the young people to help develop the next generation of Chinese players, writers and composers,’ says Chin. ‘For example, we have an internship programme for local and overseas musicians, and we regularly call for new works from young composers at our concerts.

‘We have a series called Music from the Heart, for which we select significant pieces from the submitted works and present these at a concert. After the concert, we hold discussion sessions with the composers, music experts and audience. Many of today’s renowned Hong Kong composers first had their work presented at Music from the Heart many years ago.

‘Then with our internship programmes, young musicians benefit from regular rehearsals with HKCO and also have a chance to go on stage with the orchestra at formal concerts and even tour with them to other countries. We have different branches of the programme for players, composers and also for people who want to work in management or administration.

‘On top of this we are organising the Hong Kong International Youth Chinese Music Festival from 2016-18. During the Festival, youth orchestras from across China will be invited to come to Hong Kong. It should be an exciting time: for example, we will hold a 40-second music video competition for them to take part in.

‘Nurturing local budding composers is a very important part of HKCO’s outreach work. Music from the Heart, which began in 1999, has always been a practical forum for local composers to showcase their works, and hence to obtain the right exposure and learning experience.

Renowned local composers such as Ng Chuk Yin, Alfred Wong and Joshua Chan, have all participated in the concerts on various occasions. Throughout the years, we have discovered many local talents in this way and have also commissioned them for new major works at different concerts. Supporting the next generation of Chinese musicians and composers is what HKCO does best.’