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Interview: Maestro Yan Huichang and featuring our city's brightest composers

"The HKCO is a symbol of the cultural identity of Hong Kong."

Maestro Yan Huichang
Twenty years on from the handover and Hong Kong is at a cultural, social and political crossroads, especially in the wake of recent protests and violent movements. Yet 2017 is not set to be just a momentous year for our city in terms of politics but also for our Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, which is in the thick of its 40th anniversary season. From September it’s been toasting the milestone year and now comes the biggest celebration yet: its Melodious Hong Kong concert on January 14.

The HKCO is dedicated to preserving the works of Chinese composers both in Hong Kong and across the rest of China. As part of its 40th anniversary, and to usher in 2017, the orchestra’s Melodious programme is all about celebrating the best in new and classic Hong Kong composing. At the heart of the concert is HKCO’s director-maestro Yan Huichang. Born and raised in Heyang, Shaanxi Province, he studied composition in Shanghai, becoming principal conductor and director of the Chinese National Traditional Orchestra after graduating cum laude in 1983. He gained the title of National Class One Conductor in 1987 and headed to Hong Kong 10 years later to take up the post as HKCO director. “My early years in China,” he reflects, “continue to influence me. It’s a culmination of my past experiences.”

Then and now, Yan’s passion is Chinese music but the nuanced traditions of this art form are far from simple. Yan says that once the music begins, it’s far removed from Western traditions. Having conducted Western orchestras such as the Russian Philharmonic in addition to his work in Chinese music, Yan says the differences between the two are crucial, noting that the modern Chinese orchestra has only been around for about 100 years. And, with that, he says, the pressure is always on to fully understand the unique instruments and their traditions, and to use them in such a way as to create complex textures. “The biggest issue that Chinese conductors face,” he adds, “is that they always have to perform new material. And when you’re conducting entirely new works, the time and effort that goes in is exponentially more than just conducting a classical piece.”

Melodious comprises seven works, two of which are classics, namely Eight Steeds by Chan Wing-wah and Thinking of the Sages by Richard Tsang. But the main draw is the world premiere of five new works, each by a different decorated member of the Hong Kong Composers Guild. Each work evokes a particular facet of Hong Kong society. It’s a difficult programme, according to Yan, due to the amount of new works. So why even take it on? “The orchestra,” he says, “is a symbol for the cultural identity of Hong Kong. Our programmes are very rich in traditional music but we also work hard to promote the works of Hong Kong composers. Over the past 20 years, as long as I have directed and especially when we perform abroad, we make it a point to select at least one work by a Hong Kong composer in each programme. This is our responsibility to Hong Kong’s culture.”

What makes this performance especially compelling is that Yan has always considered Hong Kong his second home. This is an anniversary for him in our SAR as much as it’s a toast to the HKCO’s 40 years in the business. Though Yan was born in rural China, he’s lived in our city the longest. “Hong Kong is a melting pot of East and West,” he muses. “It’s where I blossomed as an artist and grew as a person. It’s a free place and it respects and cultivates creativity. Without Hong Kong, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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