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Interview: Kappellmeister Jimmy Chiang on the Vienna Boys' Choir and Mahler's Symphony No. 8

"The choir plays a very important role in representing musical history"

The Hong Kong-Vienna Music Festival, hosted by the Vienna Boys’ Choir Music Academy Foundation, comes to a roaring head after a month of concerts in both Hong Kong and Vienna as the Vienna Boys’ Choir, led by kappellmeister Jimmy Chiang, performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 8. Nicknamed ‘The Symphony of a Thousand’, the piece involves eight soloists, at least three choirs – one of which must be a children’s choir – and a full orchestra plus special instruments. This year, the boys of the Haydn Choir are joining forces with the Arnold Schönberg Choir as well as soloists that include Hong Kong’s very own Yuki Ip, Samantha Chong, Louise Kwong and Apollo Wong. 
 
Based in Vienna, kappellmeister Chiang is a Hong Kong native – a perfect fit then for this final performance. We speak to him about the pressures of organising the massive choral work and the differing musical cultures in the two cities he calls home.

Vienna is one of the most important cities in music history and Hong Kong has a thriving classical music scene of its own. What do you hope to see by bringing these two cities together?
One thing is for sure, in order to bring together two music metropoles – Vienna with its long history and tradition in art and culture, and Hong Kong with fast growing modern technologies – that itself is an ambitious task and the result will surely be worthwhile. There’s much to learn about each other in terms of ways of living, ways of music making, ways of administration and handling business.

The Vienna Boys’ Choir has an illustrious history. What does it mean to be continuing that tradition?
To be able to work directly within the heritage of classical music is, of course, an honour and a privilege as a musician. There exists a combination of history, a way of music making, a tradition of performance practice and a repertoire that more or less has a direct connection with the original composers themselves. In this case, the VBC plays a very important role in representing music history.

When one thinks of Mahler, one thinks of absurd scale, especially with Symphony No 8. What are the challenges when conducting this piece?
Well, first things first, we have to get the people there! For me, this is the hardest piece to organise, that’s before even studying the score and conducting it. It involves selecting the right soloists for each part, making lots of technical decisions on how many strings and singers we should use given the size of the venue and then making efforts to tailor the cast to this particular festival, which I intend to be half Viennese and half Hongkongers. Couple that with logistics, visas and transport and you’ll see that having a hard-working administrative team is equally if not more important than the realisation of the piece itself. Many misunderstand what the role of a conductor is, which is to organise and to know how to delegate in order to bring about the real work. Once everyone is there and professionally prepared, the rest is up to me to offer a pleasant atmosphere for everyone to make music in.

Of all the great choral works, why finish the festival with Mahler’s No 8?
Mahler is the best composer to represent the Viennese classical scene, as he was a prominent artist in Vienna during his lifetime. Also, when thinking of a work to bridge Vienna and Hong Kong, Mahler 8 immediately came to mind. The bridging of old Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and the final scene in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic play Faust is like bridging the old imperial Vienna and the contemporary Hong Kong. To top that off, Mahler 8 is rarely, if ever, done in Hong Kong. What’s more, the day of the performance happens to be the birthday of Goethe himself!

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