Without Walls: Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra

Celina Chin, executive director at HKCO, on her plans to move Chinese repertoire forward

As the orchestra’s executive director Celina Chin explains, it’s not just Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO) that is forging a new path for Chinese classical music – it’s Chinese orchestras across the Asia-Pacific region. The past decade has seen a rapid rise in the commissioning of new works for full-scale Chinese orchestral music; indeed, in excess of 2,300 new pieces have passed through HKCO via its competition and engagement activities.

Among this number were many successes, including Chan Ming-Chi’s Jing Qi Shen; Doming Lam’s The Insect World and Autumn Execution; Zhuang Zhou’s Dream by Zhou Jiping; and Kuan Nai-chung’s The Age of the Dragon – all of which have now become popular classics among Chinese orchestras.

While Chin says the majority of pieces are very good, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has plans to help composers create the best pieces possible. Failures in the past, she explains, have been down to a lack of familiarity with traditional Chinese instruments, performance techniques, instrumentation, tone and musical idiom. HKCO music director Yan Huichang will address this at the Chinese Music Without Bounds symposium scheduled for next year, ahead of the composition competition in 2017.

Says Chin: ‘It was the idea of our maestro Yan Huichang to have a symposium. Following our first competition for Chinese orchestral music in 2000, many other places, such as Singapore and Taiwan, also organised competitions for orchestral music. The maestro thought it would be useful to offer something more, and so the symposium will bring together composers from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong, Belgium and Luxembourg – all of whom have practical experience and can speak about the difficulties they encounter in writing Chinese music. This will help the Westerners and the youngsters to see the full picture, and via demonstrations they can experience the real sound of an orchestra.’

Discussions will cover the notation and performance of contemporary Chinese music, the collation of information to standardise the naming of the instruments in a full-size Chinese orchestra, and advice on the configuration of a Chinese orchestra. Delegates will also benefit from a session called the Ten Don’ts, in which HKCO musicians will point out the special characteristics of Chinese instruments so that composers can better understand how to enrich their work for instrumentalists.

There will be a special session entitled A Tribute to Music Maestros, where Huichang and resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat will give a presentation on the works of two important figures in modern Chinese music, maestros Peng Xiuwen and Liu Wenjin.

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is a true activist in this area: its manifesto is to transform Chinese orchestral music into an internationally recognised form with its root in Chinese culture. Anyone should be able to conduct, compose, and enjoy Chinese repertoire, regardless of ethnicity, because they appreciate and like the music, and not because it is ‘Chinese’.

Over the past 15 years, HKCO has hosted the International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition (2000); Chinese Orchestra Composition Symposium (2000); a seminar on The Ecology of Chinese Music in a Modern Environment and its Future Development (2002); and The Fourth International Symposium on Chinese Music – Tradition and Evolution (2007).

What is needed, says Chin, is the self-confidence to push Chinese music into the mainstream: ‘I think when you have a scenario like we have in Hong Kong, a British colonial background, Western music is more popular and more people learn Western instruments as children. Even in mainland China it’s the same, and in Taiwan.’

This is an excerpt from a full interview. Pick up a full digital edition or subscribe to read more, including details of how HKCO plans to address the issue of a perceived gap in consumer tastes between traditional Chinese and Western audiences.