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Interview: Philip Chu on Cantabile, Handel's Messiah and music in Hong Kong

"The challenge is in bringing something new to the table to attract musicians and audience members."

The classical scene in our city has many stalwarts who together present some of the best in international talent and repertoire: not least the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the
Sinfonietta, the City Chamber Orchestra and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. However, this Christmas season there is a new arrival. Cantabile, a new choir and orchestra with a focus dedicated to nurturing outstanding local talent, strikes its first chord on December 15 as it presents Handel’s Messiah at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

At the eye of the storm is Philip Chu, conductor and mastermind behind this fresh orchestral concept. A Hongkonger by birth, Chu studied voice at the University of Sydney, completed a masters at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has conducted orchestras the world over, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera and our own Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, most notably in 2013 in a previous rendition of Messiah. Prior to the performance, we speak with Chu about building a new orchestra and his vision for Cantabile…

So Philip, let’s start with you. Why conducting?
With conducting, it’s very much about how you connect with your musicians, analyse a score and develop your own interpretation. Musicians are sure to have played the pieces more than I have, so the challenge is in bringing something new to the table to attract musicians and audience members. In this sense, conducting is a sales pitch and the quality of the performance always reflects the conducting first and foremost.

And having previously only conducted, you’re suddenly leading your own orchestral team and organisation. Do you see this as an extension
of conducting?
That’s right. I see conducting as playing a similar role to a film director. But being an organiser for Cantabile is more like being a producer. The conductor stands out in front, the face of the production, while the organiser is the hero behind the scenes. My current role is a confluence of both.

What is the overall vision and goal behind Cantabile?
I want to use Cantabile as a platform to connect and grow our musicians and this starts with our dedication to pay our performers a professional wage. After all, making a career out of music is every performer’s end goal. There are some groups in Hong Kong who don’t even pay enough to cover transportation costs for the musicians! It makes it very hard for musicians to survive, so the issue becomes not whether they have the talent but whether they can focus on expressing themselves instead of focusing on making a living. There are performers who are forced to miss rehearsals and who therefore can’t do a concert because they have to teach lessons to earn a livable income.

Would you say that the major difference between your organisation and more ‘international’ organisations like HK Phil is that you actively gun for local talent
That’s right. With groups like HK Phil, they already have the resources to hire world-class musicians and have a reputation to uphold, so they’re reluctant to take the risk of utilising new talent. They don’t want to deface their brand. We, on the other hand, don’t have this issue. We can focus on labelling our organisation as one that helps develop talent and potential in young artists. We don’t have as many restrictions.

Lastly, why Handel’s Messiah for Cantabile’s debut?
The piece is incredibly popular, so it’s the perfect choice to let the audiences and the choir have a familiar entry point. I’ve switched up the style of the concert to include choir and solo rotation. All 17 choir members have solo parts, so there’s a lot of pressure on the choir as at least some part of the three-hour production they’ll have to sing from memory. My aim is for all the performers to showcase their abilities in this concert!

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