The Amateurs and Mahler

Some 100-odd years after the death of the composer Gustav Mahler and 8,000 miles away from where he was buried in Vienna in 1911, two conductors in the same city set out to produce Mahler’s entire cycle of symphonies. One, of course, is Edo de Waart, the world-famous music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, an orchestra he has made his own and improved relentlessly

De Waart began his Mahler cycle in 2004 and continues to work at it. He has one of the nine yet to complete -- the Eighth, whose logistics – hundreds of singers and an orchestra of 171 – are too daunting at the moment.

The other is the SAR Philharmonic Orchestra, which came into existence two years after the handover of Hong Kong to China and is named for the Special Administrative Region, the title Beijing gave to the former colony. Its conductor, Chiu Kai Kung, is an unassuming trumpeter and former lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and its musicians are engineers, dentists, doctors, anaesthesiologists, psychologists, stockbrokers, a veterinarian, students and a striking array of other professions. They finished the cycle of nine Mahler works in June this year -- ahead of de Waart. This is their story.

“It is a kind of joke, but it is a very good joke,” says YK Wong, the paediatrician who was instrumental in founding this remarkable orchestra. “Many people said it was impossible, but actually because I have lived in Hong Kong so long, I know the situation, and I knew it was the right time to try something ambitious, and meaningful too – not just in the music sense, but in the fulfilment of actually playing music.”

The SAR Philharmonic’s story is one that explains, at least in part, why in Asia, and particularly China, classical music is alive and well. Anywhere between 30 and 100 million children are estimated to be learning piano, violin or both in China – which explains the emergence of such piano prodigies as Lang Lang) and Li Yundi. In Hong Kong alone, according Chiu Kai Kung and Richard Pontzious, director of the Asian Youth Orchestra, there as many as a million students studying classical music. Hong Kong’s MTR throngs with eight year olds bearing cello cases strapped to their backs or violin cases under their arms.


Unfortunately, only about 50 will become professional musicians, although virtually every mother and father in the territory, it seems, dragoons the children into picking up an instrument – usually a stringed instrument or the piano. The others will become those engineers, dentists, doctors, anaesthesiologists, psychologists, stockbrokers, a veterinarian, students and the striking array of other professions – many of them growing up with a longing to continue to play. Interestingly, any classical performance in Hong Kong is likely to lure a large number of children as young as seven or eight, who actually sit still and listen – a phenomenon unheard of in, say, San Francisco or New York.

There are at least eight orchestras in Hong Kong, playing classical music in varying degrees of amateurism or professionalism, starting at the top with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Sinfonietta, both professional orchestras. In the SARPO, as its members universally call it, there are students so poor that the orchestra gives them cab fare. At the other end of the scale are surgeons – Paul Cheng, an oncologist, and Szeto Ming-leung, a general internal medicine specialist. Another is a geographer – Ronald Hill, a professor at Hong Kong University who once bought his son a double bass. The son gave up after six weeks and the father picked it up. Now he is an integral part of the orchestra.

Wong laughs with embarrassment at the thought of being compared to de Waart’s Hong Kong Philharmonic.

“Every time we played another [symphony], we were intimidated,” Wong said. “But you have to realize we’re crazy. As I say, we started the Mahler cycle with tongue in cheek. But the further we got, the more serious it became.”

The kind of cohesion created by professional musicians, rehearsing and working together for months, perhaps years at a time, is not always here. The SARPO, as its members call it, might well be like Doctor Johnson’s dancing dog. [Samuel Johnson, the English sage, once famously told his biographer James Boswell, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It’s not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”). But the orchestra regularly suits up in soup-and-fish and performs across a wide repertoire – for charity.

“I find it fantastic, more power to them,” said Edo de Waart. “I have a lot of respect for them.”

De Waart said he remembers doing the Third with a school orchestra in Holland, “and there is nothing so inspiring for an orchestra at any level as to do Mahler”. With the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Holland, which he has also conducted, he said: “You can start by getting on the elevator at the 80th floor, or with me at the 10th, or any level you want.”

Playing Mahler, de Waart said, “is like a lifelong quest, there is so much to that music, there is so much to discover. Someone wrote that there is no other composer with such a big reputation on so few works, and he still looms as one of the total giants. So every time you do the cycle, it is a journey every time through your own life.”


All of the SAR Philharmonic’s musicians perform for free, although the orchestra does get sponsors to pay soloists. Since 1999, when the orchestra was formed, it has collected more than HK$16 million for at least 22 charities and non-governmental organisations, including the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer society, the Red Cross, the Society for the Protection of Children, the Breast Cancer Foundation and a wide variety of others. Its Classics for Kids series brings in very young children who are normally not allowed into concert halls. It plans four more concerts this year, to benefit heart patients, the Breast Cancer Foundation and two other charitable organisations.

Dr Wong previously ran the Hong Kong Medical Association orchestra but decided he would like to go in a new direction. He resigned and in 1999 started what was first called the SAR Ensemble. The ensemble’s first concert was in the concert hall of the Union Church on Kennedy Road, playing a single piece, Mozart’s Haffner Serenade, k.250, with 26 players. They later repeated the concert at the Peak Cafe and donated the money to the Red Cross for mainland flood relief.

“We went on from there,” he said, “and people asked us why we didn’t play bigger works, like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64) or Beethoven’s Pastoral (Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68) so pretty soon we decided we could call ourselves a philharmonic orchestra.”

The orchestra “never even dreamt of doing the cycle,” he said. “It was my dream to do the Second, we did the First to test the water, and people said ‘We think you’re crazy,’ and we said ‘We know,’ we agreed. And once we had done the first five, people said we should go on.” And so they did. Wong was aided and abetted by 劉元生 (YS Liu), the concertmaster, the semi-retired owner of a Hong Kong company called Jensten International, which manufactures large, wall-sized electronic display screens.

Both Wong and Liu, although they are the orchestra’s luminaries, were drawn into music in the same way. Wong, a Hong Kong native, played the violin in junior and middle school, then abandoned it when he went to medical school in North Wales, “a totally god-forsaken hole, whose only claim to fame is that it was near the Stepford Music Festival,” he said. He left the violin for years, finally picking it up in the 1980s to discover that “when I picked it up again, it had a really interesting fungus growing on it.”

Like Wong, YS Liu never played professionally and gave it up for years before he moved to Canada in the 1980s and resumed playing – and also organized an amateur orchestra. When he moved back to Hong Kong, he first joined the Medical Association orchestra and, with Dr Wong, organized the SAR Ensemble. He took over as chairman and concertmaster in 2002. And, although he downplays his ability, he is one of the stellar attractions of the orchestra. He and the orchestra several years ago recorded the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, written by Chen Gang and He Zhan-hao, which has become one of China’s best-loved orchestral works.

So whatever possessed the orchestra’s leaders and conductor Chiu to take on the Mahler cycle, one of the most difficult challenges a professional orchestra can undertake, let alone an amateur one?

“I would never do it again,” said Alison McMillan, a cellist and teacher who joined the orchestra in 1999, with a seeming air of astonishment that she and her colleagues ever did it at all. McMillan, a Scotswoman who teaches phonics to three to six year olds, took up the cello at age 12, but says she never considered playing professionally although she returned to the instrument when she moved to Hong Kong 20 years ago. She joined the orchestra in 1999.


To get a picture of just how daunting any orchestral piece can be to put on, it is necessary to journey to a SARPO rehearsal. On this particular evening, a sweltering night in early September, the orchestra – or rather a fragment of it – assembles at Quarry Bay School, near the top of Braemar Hill to work on Symphony No. 1 in G Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The latter is a 56-minute work that normally requires at least 78 musicians including a full string section, two bassoons, four horns, three each trumpets and trombones, a tuba and full percussion section including timpani, snare and base drums, cymbals and glockenspiel.

At the Quarry Bay School auditorium, 34 musicians appear, with nary timpani, tuba, trumpet, trombone or glockenspiel in sight. One bassoon and one clarinet show up, along with four cellists and a fairly full complement of violins and violas.

That leaves Conductor Chiu with a considerable amount to hum or sing. The Second Symphony, like most of Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre, is hugely lyrical. Barry Manilow adopted one of the melodies into the pop song You’ll Never Love Again, for instance.

“Yump aDADUMyumpaDADDUMtum,” Chiu sings energetically, working to fill in the melody as the smattering of instruments play their roles – which for lesser instruments can mean nothing for than a few notes with long bars of silence in between. “YEEpupyeepupyePUP – pupyeepup . . . ”

A viola player wanders in an hour late, joins in mid-rehearsal, plays for half an hour, leaves. The music requires endless stopping and starting.

“YUMPadumdumtumYUMPadumptum . . . ” With only 34 musicians on hand, it is an object lesson on how a piece of music is built, piece by piece, fragment by fragment, and a demonstration of how intricate a score actually is.

“Our biggest headache, the reason we need 12 to 13 rehearsals to do any piece is because we usually only have 40 to 60 people show up for rehearsal,” says Chiu, himself a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. “As we get closer to a concert, more and more show up,” he says.

To fill in, Chiu, a trumpet player as well as a conductor, usually brings in 12 to 15 young students from the HKAPA. “But then to get them, I have to give them scholarships, I have to personally chauffeur them around. A lot of them are poor, they don’t have cash for taxis. There is a lot of hand-holding, there are lots of things we have to do.”

Rehearsals tend to fill out more and more as the orchestra gets closer to the concert date, Dr Wong says. But he’s never sure he has a full orchestra “until about 15 minutes before the concert begins”.

Then there’s Mahler, who according to his biographers saw himself as a composer forced into a life as a conductor. Somewhat slight and below average height, he nonetheless appears to have been a truly startling and magnetic presence on the podium. It is said that the mad German dictator Adolf Hitler took his famed seig heil salute, his arm flung up and his hand out, from watching Mahler conduct, although Mahler, born a Jew, would probably have been outraged by the thought. Hitler later termed Mahler’s music degenerate. Once, according to his biographers, Mahler was turned down for a position with an Austrian orchestra and learned later that it was because of his “Jewish nose”. Later, when he had achieved worldwide acclaim, he was offered the same position and sent a telegram reading: “Cannot accept position. Nose the same.”


Mahler was invited to New York to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1909 for three months at a phenomenal US$30,000, a salary unheard of at the time. He appears to have been a near genius. Once, when asked to conduct an opera he had never heard of the same night and without a rehearsal, he borrowed the score and learned the entire opera the same afternoon.

By all accounts, he was intense and driven, writing gargantuan late Romantic symphonies against the prevailing musical taste of the time in Vienna. He appears to have believed the widespread 19th-century superstition that death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies. Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert and Dvorak all died after having finished their ninth. Only Mozart, who wrote an astounding 41 as part of an oeuvre that included 600 works, appeared to have escaped – although he died at 35. Mahler himself thought he had beaten the curse by finishing the Ninth and retitling it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). He told his wife “the danger is past”, and began working on what would have been another Ninth. But he fell ill at age 50 from a streptococcal blood infection in New York, and died four months later. His ersatz Symphony No. 9 – the fragment now known as the Tenth – was thus left unfinished, nor did he ever hear Symphony No. 9 played.

The Ninth, however, was the last symphony played by the SAR Philharmonic in June in Hong Kong. Whether that would have pleased Mahler is problematical. As a conductor, Mahler was known to rehearse his orchestras until their hands bled. The SAR Philharmonic, with its 34 performers in an ESF school, and with conductor Chiu humming to fill in the missing parts, might not have been quite what Mahler envisioned.

The SAR Philharmonic started the cycle on April 14, 2002 in a Hong Kong University concert hall with Symphony No. 1 in D major, the Titan, perhaps the most melodic of Mahler’s symphonies and one of the shortest at 58 minutes, with its minor-key Frere Jacques variation in the third movement – that funeral theme again – then progressed to the Second, an amazingly lugubrious piece of music that the composer originally conceived as a single-movement symphonic poem called Totenfeier in German – Death Celebration. When he finished it, it, the title became Resurrection and called for voices including a soprano and alto, and a mixed chorus that invited comparisons to Beethoven’s mighty Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, known as the Choral Symphony and considered one of the greatest classical compositions ever written. Mahler knew it would encourage such associations, probably unfavorable, and he wasn’t cowed. It became Mahler’s most popular work in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, perhaps testimony to a tumultuous and lugubrious age.

It took six years for the SAR Philharmonic to finish the cycle of all nine symphonies. The biggest sticking point might have been Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, which the SAR Philharmonic performed on May 24, 2006. When the gigantic 90-minute symphony premiered in Munich in 1910, it required a chorus of 850 and an orchestra of 171. Leopold Stokowski gave it its US premier in 1916 with 1,068 performers.


There was no way the SAR Philharmonic could round up nearly that many musicians and singers, but they did manage more than 124 musicians and 250 singers in the chorus and eight soloists – partly because of Richard Wallace, the head of Hong Kong-based Enzard, an independent financial research company, who joined the orchestra in 1999 as a violinist and who is now a member of the board of directors. Wallace, who speaks German, was dispatched to local high schools and colleges to teach choruses to sing with a German accent. A man with a formidably stiff English accent as well as a German one, Wallace narrated Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with the orchestra on September 21 at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, proceeds to the Bring Me a Book Foundation.

The capstone of the Mahler series, the Ninth, came on June 15 when the orchestra assembled in the Cultural Centre Concert Hall in Kowloon, the venue that Edo de Waart has made his own for the past five years. It was the hour and 21-minute Symphony No. 9 in D major, written by Mahler not only during a deep personal crisis brought on by the death of a child and reportedly knowledge of the infidelity of his wife Alma, but according to Leonard Bernstein in a series of lectures, in a rhythm to imitate the arrhythmia of his failing heartbeat after he had learned he suffered from post-rheumatic heart disease.

Whether Bernstein was right or wrong, the Ninth has been described as an “extended conflict between the elements of life and death”. Indeed, the first movement, the marathon andante comodo, runs 28.56 minutes and often conjures up images of trains coupling and uncoupling in a freight yard. Because there are so many complete halts and restarts in the movement, it appears devilishly hard for an amateur orchestra to play with the kind of unity necessary. To an audience of hundreds of young, there for a charity concert for the Neighbourhood Advice-Action Council, there are times when it appears touch and go.

But in the final movement, the adagio, labeled zurückhaltend, or “very slowly and held back”, at the end there is a magical moment when audience and orchestra come utterly together. Described by many as Mahler’s farewell to the world because of the opening theme’s resemblance to the hymn “Abide with Me”, or Bleib bei mir, Herr in German, comes back at the finale. Two motifs come together, one on bassoon, the other the violins. Slowly, in the coda, the strings are gently muted and begin to die away. At the end, the concertmaster CK Liu, alone, plays the dominant Bleib bei mir, Herr theme, growing ever slower and more hesitant and finally dying away to a rapt audience that remains utterly silent before the applause begins.

A version of this originally appeared in Muse, the Hong Kong-based magazine of arts and culture