Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival 2016

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Jan 20-Jan 27

Eunice Tsang speaks to founder Andrea Fessler and artistic director Lin Cho-liang ahead of the seventh Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival

These days it’s hard to believe that the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival started with only 11 musicians and a short lineup of four concerts. Yet in only six years, founder Andrea Fessler and her team at Premiere Performances Hong Kong have managed to grow it impressively into one of the most anticipated highlights of the musical calendar. For its seventh year the festival will be curated by internationally acclaimed violinist and artistic director Lin Cho-liang, Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2000. 

There’s a dizzying array of music festivals throughout the year in Hong Kong, but the International Chamber Music Festival is nothing run of the mill. A normal festival brings in a variety of ready-made acts from all over the world and puts them on in an arranged manner. The Chamber Music Festival is much more organic. “Our festival is very different,” Fessler explains. “We bring in a diverse group of musicians – so you might have a cellist from Germany, a violinist from Korea and a pianist from the United States, who all have their own career but come together for this period of time, and rehearse the repertoire that the artistic director programmes. And because they don’t usually perform together, there’s a little bit more energy and excitement than usual.” 

Violinist Clara-Jumi Kang

Lin is an expert on fashioning classical programmes, having curated the festival for five years straight, and reveals how she brings everything together. “Every festival starts from scratch. We draft ideas and artists, and I start make queries to those artists, whether they’re willing to play a certain piece.” Lin smiles, “It has to make sense, musically, and I also have to make sure that the guests artists have an almost equal share of labour and exposure, that they all have something really good to play and have adequate rehearsal time.” We venture that it sounds a bit like carefully arranging seating at a dinner party – “Except at a dinner party you don’t have show your dislike for another person in public in front of 900 people!” replies the artistic director. The diverse musicians handpicked by Lin all have strong careers all over the world. “For a lot of them, it's a long schlepp to come from Europe or North America, and jet lag is always a challenge,” Lin tells us. “So you want those who have more intrepid spirits. But I think somehow going to Hong Kong appeals to just about everyone. It's never difficult to entice a colleague to come.”

The festival opens with a night of gypsy spirit, with a programme of Dohnányi, Bartók and Brahms. “Hungarian music is so powerful, so emotional,” says Lin, explaining his choice. “You know, a lot of people think Hungarian music is gypsy music – that’s what Brahms thought – but the fact is gypsies run all over Europe. Brahms got to know gypsy music through Hungarian violinists that ran across and he wrote this fantastic quartet in G minor that has a rousing gypsy rondo. It’s one of the most popular works in chamber music, and a great tour de force for every player. But then I thought, it would be wonderful to have some real Hungarian music.” Which is why Lin chose Bartók, the man recognised as the father of Hungarian national music. Interestingly, Dohnányi, who was Bartók’s teacher, had already started to show signs of unique Hungarian flavours in his own compositions a generation earlier. A personal highlight for Lin is Strings by the Harbour, for which he will also be performing. “I love the Dvořák quintet. It’s so beautiful and rich, you just can’t help but smile when you listen to it. And the Carmen Fantasy is so much fun. It’s like four violinists lighting off one firework after another, and trying to outdo each other.” Not to mention the appropriate concert venue that is the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, where a vast window looks out across the sway of Victoria Harbour. 

Violist Toby Hoffman

Not that one concert should take precedence over another, since the concerts at the festival are all interlinked. To hear Fessler describe it, “There's actually no experience of a festival like this. It’s like a musical journey, an experience that you go on with the musicians from start to finish. You know, like a film festival where the audience goes and sits in the cinema for four days and watches triple features.” 

As with each year, Fessler spends a lot of time cooking up a series of outreach programmes to complement the concerts. Ranging from lectures that go into detail about the festival repertoire, to a listener’s guide to classical music for those who have never studied music theory, and – Fessler’s favourite – open rehearsals. “That’s when you actually get to sit and listen to how the artists are interacting with each other, meeting for the first time or working through a piece. It’s like being a fly on the wall.”

Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival Jan 20-27, 2016. Tickets: $180-$600, discount packages available; tickets.pphk.org.


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