Not so long ago, chamber music simply did not register in Hong Kong. Sure, various chamber groups were featured during the Arts Festival and on other special occasions, and student groups — primarily emerging from the Academy of Performing Arts — would cheerfully saw and toot their way through ghastly arrangements in local shopping malls. More frequently, these same groups featured as the sonic backdrop for assorted cocktail receptions in our glittering temples of commerce; somebody undoubtedly was hoping to impart a degree of sophistication. Over the last decade, however, things have changed significantly. The HK Sinfonietta is organizing a chamber music series during lunchtime, and members from the HK Philharmonic have formed professional chamber ensembles. Radio 4 has a resident String Quartet, and recently, the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival — under new artistic leadership and scheduled during an unusual time of year — convened for its third annual gathering. As I was finding my seat for a programme entitled “Paris and Shanghai” in a fully-booked City Hall theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have spawned this sudden proliferation of chamber music in Hong Kong, and even more importantly, where it was going?
Initially, there is much to like about this event in general. Performers from all over the world mingle with local talents for a week of musical conversation to which the general public is invited. If this concept sounds familiar, of course it is. During the summer months, this has been happening for decades in Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States. Up till now, the Hong Kong Festival directly competed against these more established chamber events, with most of the interested HK population preferring a bit of fresh air and some musical entertainment overseas. Unable to compete on the oxygen issue, the HK Festival moved its annual gathering to a new timeslot in January, which will ultimately — judging from the interest and the ample attendance it created — turn out to have been a very astute decision. In addition, Cho-Liang Lin took over as artistic director, and a substantial critical and educational apparatus, ranging from Master classes to Community Outreach Concerts, supported the musical presentations. The concert under consideration took its bearing from the long-standing cultural associations between the cities of Paris and Shanghai. Yet the programme itself essentially featured music from the glory days of the Paris Conservatory, with particular emphasis on repertory composed for the flute and the harp. The programming was nevertheless imaginative as it featured an unusual repertoire that is musically valuable, but one that is not commonly heard in live performances.
The musical execution of this thoughtful programme, however, was somewhat spotty. The opening love duet by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns between harp and violin had the emotional warmth of a rusty air conditioner. All that talk about musical communication was exactly that, nothing but talk. Cho-Liang Lin and Naoko Yoshino — who played superbly all evening — independently kept emphasizing a structural architecture that simply does not exist. With the violin slightly out off tune, this duet of discontent made for a rather ominous beginning. Thankfully, things quickly improved as the Shanghai Quartet together with Ying Huang and Shai Wosner crafted a beautiful rendition of Ernest Chausson’s “Chanson Perpétuelle”. Marina Piccinini provided the undisputed highlight of the evening with her interpretation of the flute version of César Franck’s A-major Sonata. Technically brilliant and musically refined, even the slightly muddy accompaniment provided by Andreas Haefliger could not distract from Piccinini’s artistry. A solid performance of Debussy’s “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” was followed by a mature ensemble presentation of the composer’s “Sacred and Profane Dances”, and Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro”— once again featuring a technically flawless Naoko Yoshino — provided a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful evening of chamber music. You might reasonable wonder, how Shanghai actually fit into this programme? Primarily, it referenced the performers of the Shanghai Quartet. However, at some stage during the evening, we did hear an arrangement of “5 Chinese Songs”, but as is frequently the case, these little transplants are musically not very satisfying. For establishing a tradition of chamber music in Hong Kong, however, this juxtaposition of the Western and Southeast Asian repertories — not necessarily relying purely on Chinese and overseas Chinese composers — is of paramount importance. Incidentally, the concert on January 15, presenting music by Bartok, Chen Yi and Tan Dun — and they could easily have drawn from the Classical or early Romantic repertory as well — should probably serve as the paradigm programming model for future HK Chamber Festivals.
For much of Western music history, chamber music has stood for and fulfilled a variety of social and musical roles. Whether escaping its aristocratic beginnings, competing against the communications offered by a solo instrument or the glowing public sounds of orchestral music, being identified with personal and cultural maturation within a broader societal context or functioning as a vehicle for musical innovation, chamber music has always found a way to reinvent itself. And apparently, this is happening in HK right now! I hasten to add that this is not merely the result of having too many failed soloists at hand, but rather a hopeful sign of Hong Kong’s continued maturation in terms of music and the Arts. As such, the organizers of the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival have a tremendous responsibility, and I am sure they are aware of this fact. A variety of organizational structures and musical issues will need to be resolved, improved and implemented. Chiefly among them, I believe, is the complete separation of the administrative roles from actual performance. Otherwise both aspects will continue to suffer as demonstrated by Jimmy Lin’s on stage performance and by the Festival motto “Experience the Passion”, which completely undermined any honorable intentions this event might have had. But for now, they certainly seem to be on the right track.