Written to glorify God, Ode to Joy, the choral symphony from Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, and the famous hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah are some of the most well-known pieces in the history of Western music. But these days, for many, church music is a relic belonging to a past era. Yet, whatever other traditions have been lost in Hong Kong, our city hasn’t forgotten its appreciation for this very particular style of music.
Felix Yeung, the director of music at Central’s 169-year-old St John’s Cathedral, is one of those individuals entrusted with maintaining Hong Kong’s history of church music. Yeung recently received the Award for Young Artist (Music) from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, among other prizes he has earned, in recognition of his talent and efforts. His main duty is to conduct St John’s cathedral choir but he is also responsible for playing the organ and overseeing the music ministry of the entire institution.
“I’ve always enjoyed conducting,” the 29-year-old states. “I can’t see myself having another career and I won’t become a professional conductor if I do!” Yeung started conducting at the age of 13, at his alma mater, St Paul’s College, for an end-of-term concert, and he has continued to do so ever since. “I joined the cathedral choir when I was 15, as a singer, and was given the chance to conduct the choir every now and then by the then director of music, Raymond Fu,” Yeung recalls. By taking up this position, Yeung feels it allows him to give back to a place that has taught him a lot. He tells us: “I don’t like making music on my own and by being a conductor, I can act as a medium for other musicians to make music together.”
Rumour has it that Yeung graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he studied choral conducting, with the highest mark ever attained in the history of the course. “I’m really not sure,” he states frankly when quizzed on his academic success, “but I did get 90 for my dissertation on Gregorian chant.” Regardless, Yeung is sure studying in London was hugely beneficial. “It opened up my inner musical ear simply by being in the culture and having the privilege to be involved in so much high quality music-making,” he states. “The advantage to being in London is that you get all the best performers in the world at your doorstep. All you need to do is take the tube or even just walk.”
Yeung is one of the handful of paid church musicians in Hong Kong. “In Chinese-speaking churches, whatever denominations, the mentality is that the work of the church, especially musical work, should be voluntary,” Yeung reveals. He continues: “I do see the tides turning, though. Some church leaders can see that quality would improve by turning the situation more professional.” Fair pay for religious work is clearly a sore spot. “Why are only pastors getting paid?” muses Yeung. “Yes, [music is] an offering to God but we still need to survive. We don’t have manna and quail now!”
The other big debate in church music is whether institutions should forgo classical music and adopt a more popular, contemporary canon. Yeung is of the opinion that his music should be ‘timeless’ and that ‘if we do something unrelated to our tradition, I don’t think it could be considered church music’. He is understanding of those keen to modernise, however. “With quality music, like Bach for example, when you first listen, it can be quite boring,” he remarks. “However, the more you listen to it, the more treasures you find. That’s why it’s a precious thing to keep, because there’s depth in it.”
Yeung, who conducts choirs not just in Hong Kong but also Macao, Taiwan and Singapore, tells us that as much as he enjoyed being a classical musician in London, it’s unlikely he will ever work there. “Certainly, the audience is larger and perhaps one would feel more appreciated but I would be a small fish in a big pond. It’s much more meaningful to work here in the East, where I can bring some water over and create an entirely new pond.”