The Flying Dutchman at Home in Hong Kong

Edo de Waart is at peace, relaxed in an untucked blue shirt for lunch with four German opera singers appearing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s performance of Richard Straus's Der Rosenkavalier,* which opened the 2007-2008 season. A sensitive young culture reporter turns to Michelle Breedt, the world-renowned mezzo soprano who sings the dual roles of the servant girl Mariandelle and the boy Octavian.

What’s her biggest problem, the reporter asks, in switching from the personality of girl to boy in an instant? “Keeping my boobs flat,” Breedt answers, prompting a guffaw from the maestro.

That is a considerably different de Waart from the tense and touchy artistic director and chief conductor who took over the orchestra in 2004. Once described in the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘famously taciturn’, today he is relaxed, voluble and willing, if not eager, to talk about what he says is becoming “my orchestra.”

Oliver Chou, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent music critics and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Center of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong, and others say the Hong Kong Philharmonic has moved considerably up the scale of Asia’s and the world’s concert ensembles since de Waart took over. One American composer who prefers not to be named puts the orchestra on a par roughly with the respected Detroit Symphony in Michigan, somewhat below the San Francisco and New York orchestras, and well below Berlin and London, as de Waart himself acknowledges.

The violins, Chou says, remain relatively ragged, although the horns and woodwinds are very tight. The cellos, led by the veteran Richard Bamping, are quite strong.

Four years ago, Hong Kong wanted a world-class conductor. The 66-year-old Dutch maestro was fresh from such prestigious positions as chief conductor of the San Francisco and Minneapolis symphonies, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and other world-renowned orchestras. In Hong Kong, he discovered he had a vastly underpaid orchestra, a miserable endowment, a concert hall with inadequate facilities that he had to share with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, an audience, he says today, that would take a week of performances to fill the hall once – and a rapidly fading genre: classical music.

Hong Kong itself at the time had just begun to pull itself out of the crisis caused by SARS. Hundreds of thousands, those who were willing to go out in public, were wearing surgical masks. They stayed away from public places, including performances of the symphony, in an attempt to avoid the virus.

“From a low point when I started, I would walk out onto the stage and have barely half a hall,” de Waart says today. “I would say to myself, ‘Jeez, how are we going to do this?’”

In addition, the city had suffered from six straight years of economic deflation that started with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and 1998 and a collapsed housing bubble that made the government and private donors reluctant to make money available for luxuries like a symphony. In 2004, a deal to construct a huge cultural centre in West Kowloon collapsed, and along with it plans for a 2,000-seat concert hall that de Waart thought was ill-suited for the orchestra anyway.

At the time the classical music industry was reeling from an article by musicologist Norman Lebrecht, writing in “La Scena Musicale,” a monthly classical music magazine, who summed the genre as a “gerontocracy” with an atmosphere “about as lively as a cruise ship, its intellectual magnetism about as potent as a pension plan.” Lebrecht advocated designing 40-minute concerts for under-40 concertgoers, providing free babysitting services at weekends, trying late-night concerts, refreshing the concert experience.

Particularly in the United States, conductors have begun to turn in desperation to using 95-piece symphony orchestras to deliver programmes like “Great Movie Themes,” or scoring Beatles tunes for classical orchestras. The pressure was on for the Hong Kong Phil and de Waart to build an evening, for instance, around a Cantopop star or two. Since the 1980s, the orchestra has held concerts with pop stars in the Colisseum in Hung Hom under different conductors, but never in the main Kowloon concert hall.

De Waart was interested, he says, but so far he hasn’t found the right combination. As can be imagined, he is very particular about his music. Dumbing down the orchestra was not an option. Besides, he says now, “My talents in the pop world aren’t that great. I haven’t done that much. I have conducted West Side Story, and a lot of Porgy and Bess, but that is all semi-classical. The real pop world, I have really basically never done anything in it, and to make me, a stiff Dutchman, stand there and sort of not be with it, nothing would be worse than if it turned out to be slightly embarrassing.”

Heavy metal, he says, he hates. If it were James Taylor, he says, or Joni Mitchell, he muses… “In fact, we have been trying to see if we could get James Taylor out here. I would do anything to get him out here to do that concert, because that is the music I love, and I have heard so much of it in my life, I played all of his music in the cars that I have had over the years, it would be wonderful.”

James Taylor is 59 years old, hardly younger than de Waart himself. Joni Mitchell is 64. This is hardly Cantopop, a genre in which some singers come to fame at about the time they hit adolescence.

But even without the pop stars, classical music is reviving slowly, according to music critic Alex Ross, writing in the October 27, 2007 edition of New Yorker Magazine, surprisingly enough because of that newest of technologies, the Internet. When Apple started its iTunes music store, Ross writes, it featured several classical music performers, which caused sales of classical music to jump significantly. Amazon, the all-singing and all-dancing mail order site, also reported rising sales. It isn’t reviving very much, but it is reviving, and along with it the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

That means a considerably relaxed de Waart. When a cellphone goes off during an interview and its owner apologises volubly, de Waart shrugs. ‘It’s okay,” he says. “This isn’t a concert.”

So how did the change come about? In part because de Waart was starting from such a low point. The orchestra had previously been led by Samuel Wong, the city’s first Chinese artistic director following the territory’s handover to China in 1997. Wong largely dashed everybody’s hopes, especially after following the much-beloved David Atherton, whose stodgy but reliable diets of Beethoven, Brahms and other mainline composers pulled in an audience that didn’t like to be shaken up by new stuff. In addition to all the other problems, Wong appeared to be at war with a disgruntled, underpaid orchestra.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic was going to tax de Waart’s ability, as was the audience, which was used to very traditional music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods that stopped at the other edge of the 20th century.

De Waart on the other hand loves contemporary classical music, has won a half-dozen awards from the American Society for Composers, Artis and Publishers (ASCAP) for recordings of classical music. John Adams is a favorite. He conducted Adams’ opera Nixon in China at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and he has made four recordings of Adams’ music. Consequently, shortly after he arrived, he included a short opening fanfare, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The audience appeared stunned.

“The audience was nonplussed, the audience was going, ‘what is this, Short Ride in a Fast Machine,’” de Waart said. “You can’t absolutely play too much contemporary music. That would scare people away.”

But he is educating the audience. In September 2006, he opened the season with Iris Dévoilée, an orchestral suite by the Paris-based modernist Chinese composer Chen Qigang, sung by a Peking Opera soprano and featuring the Chinese instruments the pipa, the zheng and an erhu along with the orchestra. In the same programme was John Adams’ The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China. De Waart wants to take the 40-minute piece by Chen on tour, especially if the orchestra tours Europe and the United States, and bringing it along as his flagship piece.

Today, the orchestra’s endowment, in large part because of the beneficence of the Swire Group, has grown by 86 percent over the first year de Waart was here. Swire in April 2006 became the orchestra’s principal patron with a grant of HK$36 million over three years, leading de Waart to joke that “Before we were in dire straits. Now we are in Swire straits.” It was the largest grant in the orchestra’s history.

Attendance grew by 66 percent in de Waart’s first year, by 82 percent last year. The orchestra itself has undergone considerable change. Some 60 percent of the musicians are Asian now, from Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong itself. Where salaries for musicians were as little as HK$25,000 for a second-chair violinist, now they have increased by about a third. That means musicians no longer have to depend as much on giving private lessons and playing private functions as they do for the philharmonic’s performances themselves.

There are more changes in the works. De Waart has a record for sacking musicians, and he has been doing so, although he can’t move too fast, say those with connections to the orchestra. The brass and woodwinds have a good reputation but the strings are somewhat ragged. He has been slowly replacing string players, some of whom have been with the philharmonic since it went professional in in 1974. He replaced Concertmaster Dennis Kim in 2005 when he discovered Kim was auditioning with an American orchestra while on sick leave. Oliver Chou says some long-serving musicians have been told they will have to re-audition for their jobs at the end of the season.

Chou voices concerns that the orchestra is turning increasingly Caucasian. The double-bass section is now all-white for the first time in memory, Chou says, although the musicians are contract musicians rather than part of the professional orchestra. He is concerned hat the orchestra is becoming less local, more international, despite the high percentage of Asian players.

“I do not have a set policy,” de Waart says. “I think the best person gets the job, and if that is a Chinese player or a Taiwanese player or a Hong Kong player or a player from Birmingham, it doesn’t matter. I think if someone can make a real contribution to the orchestra and the growth of the orchestra, and bring something with them, be it either youthful enthusiasm in the case of people who don’t have a lot of experience, or a great deal of excellent experience in other good orchestras, we need all that.”

*We originally said Richard Strauss. We regret the error.

Consequently, the maestro says that, after three years, “I feel that earlier than maybe any other orchestra where I have worked it is becoming -- I don’t want this to sound the wrong way -- my orchestra. We are becoming a unit. There is still plenty to work on, but a lot of fundamentals we sort of do together, it works, and I don’t have to explain what I mean when I make a gesture. I am becoming to know them very well, especially their strengths, their weaknesses in some cases, how to deal with that. To maybe not in rehearsal press things too hard because I know it won’t at this time work, to go at it another way, so in other words I feel totally a part of the orchestra culture that we have together.”

The orchestra’s main concern, say musicians, is that de Waart might leave. He was named chief conductor of the highly-regarded Santa Fe Opera in the United States in June. The Santa Fe, however, has a summer schedule of only five operas over eight weeks. And, in an action that made the front pages of Hong Kong’s newspapers, de Waart announced that he was sending his wife sixth wife, the mezzo soprano Rebecca Dopp, and their two children, Olivia and Sebastian, back to the US because air pollution had grown so bad in the territory that he had become concerned for their health. Instead of the palatial digs he enjoyed on the south side of Hong Kong Island, he has taken a service flat in Pacific Place, where he stays when he isn’t touring or performing elsewhere.

There is the matter of the concert hall, which the Hong Kong Philharmonic has to share with visiting orchestras and other concert events, which means that often the orchestra is shunted off to other venues like Sha Tin, or to the claustrophobic confines of the concert hall in City Hall. While the Kowloon facility itself has good acoustics, the backstage area is so cramped that musicians have to pile their instrument cases wherever they can. And there is scant hope that anything will change soon. The West Kowloon Cultural Centre venture collapsed ignominiously in 2005 and has yet to be restarted. A new venue is at least six or seven years away.

Still, he says, “I am more optimistic, partly because I had no idea where we would be with the orchestra at this point. They are doing extremely well. There seems to be a n awareness in the government that if they put down the hardware – a new concert hall – they will have to do something with the human element. If you put down a tremendously beautiful museum and you don’t have any art work to hang in it, it is useless. And if you put down a concert hall and you don’t have a top-notch orchestra, it is a bit putting the horse behind the cart. I have got many signals to feel very positive that this is something that belongs in their hall plans so yes, I was pessimistic for a few years, now I am going to be optimistic for a few years.”

So he isn’t leaving the orchestra, he says. He is here to build it for the long term, he says. When he came, three years ago, “I was talking in terms of 10 years, and that is still in the cards, yes.” He is still working to make the orchestra a part of the community. Besides the 18 major concerts, its musicians give another 100-odd performances including 70 free orchestral and chamber concerts in its role as a government-funded performer, to primary and secondary school students.

Three years ago, in an interview, he dwelt at length on making the orchestra part of the community. Today, he says, “We have had some success in bringing in the establishment, it is one of those sentences that are hyped up a lot, part of the community. You think ‘What does it mean, what does it mean to be a part of the community? Does it mean I go to be a referee for the little kids’ soccer match, or somewhere, or does it mean that the people to whom serious culture is very important see us as part of their lives and embrace us slowly, more and more, as something that they want to do?

“I think the latter, with the symphony orchestra, is the thing you want first. You first want the people that actually are going to come to the concerts and pay for a ticket, you want them to feel that whatever we do is first class, you are getting something of value. You are not buying something stupid, you are going to get value for your money one way or another.”

Therein lies the problem that Lebrecht described in his 2005 article. Audiences, no matter what, aren’t getting any younger for classical music. The Hong Kong Philharmonic, the city’s top cultural event, still pulls audiences in their 40s. When he looks out over Hong Kong’s audience, he says, he sees younger faces than he does anywhere else he conducts, and that is encouraging.

Nonetheless, the irony is all too apparent. In de Waart’s first year in Hong Kong, the Philharmonic’s 91 musicians, most of whom had prepared for infancy for their jobs as superb musicians, played a program that included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in E Minor, considered perhaps the composer’s greatest work, and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. They were up against the Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne, who had taught herself to play the guitar without any lessons. Despite the symphony’s energetic publicity machine, the concert hall was about half full. Across town, hundreds of young people were clamouring for tickets to the Lavigne concert. Some 7,800 managed to get in.

“If it is Hong Kong, or Amsterdam, or New York or Berlin, (younger people) don’t go to symphony orchestras,” de Waart muses. “That is a different crowd. Maybe when they are a bit older, when they are in their 40s, that is, you say ‘What now, what do we do with our time? Do we stare at the TV or are we going to do something?”

He thinks they ultimately get out of their easy chairs and start looking for something beyond Avril Lavigne. And that, he thinks, is what propels the older audiences to the Hong Kong Philharmonic and other symphony orchestras across the world. It will continue to do so, he hopes.

Then, at the end of the interview, he arose to announce that he was off to look for scarves. It is cold in Wisconsin, where his wife and children are.

This article appeared in the December issue of Muse (www.musemag.hk), a Hong Kong-based arts magazine.

*We originally mistated the title of the opera. We apologise for the error.