Take a hungry young orchestra. Add gold, swords, dragons … and bake at Immolation-appropriate temperatures. Out of this furnace was forged a remarkable musical force. It is too early to tell if the winds of political change are really blowing through Hong Kong, but after its triumphant four-year Ring cycle (released late last year by Naxos, the Hong Kong-based label), the city’s flagship classical ensemble has come of age. The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s rise also demonstrates why many believe that the axis of the classical music world is changing. Look east for the future.
In fact, the story of the HK Philharmonic is a little more complicated than that. More remarkable, too, because, unlike most flagship Asian orchestras, it isn’t lavishly funded; nor does it (yet) occupy a gleaming new concert hall built by a marquee architect. You will only hear whingeing about its home, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a building stunningly situated opposite Hong Kong Island but with nowhere to admire the view from, while the boxy acoustic inside the hall itself has few fans.
But just as Hong Kong punches above its weight, so does its orchestra. It is sharper and savvier than its Asian competitors. It’s also a young ensemble, having only turned professional in 1974. One of the players who was already a member in its amateur guise was Fan Ting. He was born in mainland China, where his family were discriminated against as ‘bourgeoisie’ during the brutal Cultural Revolution. At the age of 13, Fan swam across a river to escape into Hong Kong, leaving his parents behind. By the time the orchestra was performing Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 2015, Fan, now retired from the orchestra, was the leader of the second violins. Yet this, he told me quite deadpan, was ‘a common story’.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s great entrepôts and naturally its orchestra today is a mix of nationalities. When the rising Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden became its Music Director in 2013, he recruited from one of his other orchestras, the Dallas Opera, a new concertmaster (Jing Wang). There was a star signing from the London Symphony Orchestra, too, in the charismatic bass clarinettist Lorenzo Iosco. Yet once van Zweden had embarked on the four-year Ring project – the first time Wagner’s tetralogy was performed by a Hong Kong or mainland Chinese orchestra – he also made a decision to stick with the ingredients he had, keeping the same players throughout. ‘It’s very easy for a music director and an orchestra to just replace its weaker elements,’ he told me, ‘but that’s not why we are here. We are here to be a family and to make each other better and that’s what we did.’
I caught the bookends of this Ring, the 2015 Rheingold and the 2018 Götterdämmerung. Much had changed in the interim, including van Zweden’s appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. The Hong Kong players, always elegant but occasionally stretched, were now a wonderful combination of the pugnacious and the poetic. Van Zweden says he programmed the Ring not just, well, in order to be able to perform the Ring, but also to train the players in the art of ensemble, of listening to one another and reacting appropriately. And it’s these skills, surely, that make a really great orchestra, beyond the calibre of individual players.
The future looks exciting. There have been successful European tours and Chinese tours. This year a new Chief Executive, Benedikt Fohr, took over. Van Zweden, now also the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, will stay in charge until at least 2022, but other conductors are being nurtured, among them the territory’s own rising star, Elim Chan. And within the next decade it is hoped that the Philharmonic will finally be able to move into its new home, part of the enormous engineering and architectural project that is the West Kowloon Cultural District. Hongkongers, ardent about their special status and willing to fight for it, can be sure that its orchestra is flying its own flag. Neil Fisher
The Orchestra of the Year Award is sponsored by Apple Music