Buru Quartet, Charles Kwong, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, Karina Yau, Lio Kuokman, MATA Festival, Ripieno Ensemble of Manila, Sharon Chan, Todd Tarantino, Toshio Hosokawa, Unsuk Chin, William Lane
My extended family nostalgia appears spontaneously as soon as I set foot in Hong Kong. When I was a little boy, a man named Harry Woo often watched me for my parents at our family restaurant at 2601 West Sixth Street in Los Angeles. Harry was their loyal dishwasher and short order cook. On what has, over time, become for me a fateful Saturday afternoon in the 1960s, he showed me a letter he was writing to his family in Hong Kong with his Cantonese calligraphy.
I’ve never recovered from that moment. Harry’s letter to his parents in Hong Kong written in Cantonese taught me the world was a bigger place than I’d ever imagined.
I’m sixty two years old and that letter memory remains as fresh as if it were yesterday. When I am in Hong Kong, because of Harry Woo, I can again sense the positive energy of my parents and happily dream that Harry is really still with me in spirit.
And being in Hong Kong with both purpose and friends is a special treat!
I’ll return soon to our personal friends Ashly Lam and Dennis Ho, who took Jan and me on a Chung Yeung Festival hike on Victoria Peak. The professional reason we were in Hong Kong was to moderate the first New Music Gathering Asia as part of the tenth anniversary season of the exceptional Hong Kong New Music Ensemble.
With over thirty years of experience running a new music group in Los Angeles, Jan and I know that there are two inflection years for the development of a performing arts organization. Those two years are the third and the tenth. The third year is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the end of the beginning. The tenth year is when you need to set your path for the next decade.
Make no mistake about it, the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble is the lead organization in both East Asia and the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia. Its technical ability is world class.
Hong Kong and Los Angeles indeed have a similar narrative. In Los Angeles, the city is a gateway to both the Pacific Rim and Latin America. Capturing that narrative was essential to the long term success of our thirty plus year engagement with our public, an easy understood answer to the why of our existence. Hong Kong is a similar gateway city, the “fragrant harbor” being where the East Asian dragons of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China meet with the Southeast Asian tigers of Việt Nam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia.
A Financial National Park, a force like no other for opportunity. There is only one place like Hong Kong on Planet Earth.
Jan and I are happy to report that the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble is in excellent shape. Founded by Australian violist William Lane a decade ago, his capable executive director is the energetic Sharon Chan, a Hong Kong native. The group’s conductor is Lio Kuokman, who has been the assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Enough said about his considerable ability on the podium. There is not a better orchestra than Philadelphia, just others with different characteristics and personalities.
And Jan and I have slowly been building bridges between Hong Kong and Hà Nội, where we are the artistic advisors to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Hà Nội is in its third season, Hong Kong its tenth. Being in our sixties allows Jan and me to tap into our thirty year experience, benefiting both groups, and as time goes on the maturing new music scene in Asia, particularly in the ASEAN countries. So when William and Sharon asked us if we’d participate in the first New Music Gathering Asia, we were thrilled to agree and make time in our schedule, with thanks to the U.S. Consular Office and its generous support.
Last season, Sharon took the initiative to visit Hà Nội to hear the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Her presence caused a positive stir among my players, as she provided much appreciated validation for the repertoire I’d chosen. What peaked her curiousity was the fact I’d programmed Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez, my starting point for expanding the repertoire in Việt Nam. Just maybe Hong Kong would have more friends in the neighborhood?
After a wonderful visit, we’ve stayed in touch and are becoming sibling organizations. Hong Kong is ten and Hà Nội is three, but the family reference works well.
Jan and I packed our bags in Hà Nội after a tremendous opening concert to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble’s third season, and headed straight for Hong Kong for the opening of the tenth anniversary of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble. Both groups at inflection points of development, a good place for the Year of the Fire Rooster, legendary in Asia as a time for planning planning planning.
The concert we heard included music by lucky composers Eric Wubbels from New York City, a co-commission with the MATA Festival, Charles Kwong of Hong Kong, Toshio Hosokawa of Japan, Yao Chen of China and Unsuk Chin of South Korea, who all received “who needs London or Los Angeles?” performances from a “we can play anything” ensemble of Hong Kong. A tremendous pride of performance was audible. After thirty years of producing concerts, you know it when you hear it!
With inspiring opening season concerts from both the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (yes, there is a new music wave building in Asia), Jan and I were excited to go to the next steps as we found the Aberdeen office of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble on Sunday morning. Time to get started with planning, sharing ideas, discussing problems, obstacles, solutions, discrepancies mixed with old fashioned getting to know each other.
Introductions are in order. Going around the table from the left is Adeline Fung of the U.S. Consular Office, composer Charles Kwong, HKNME executive director Sharon Chan, me, Todd Tarantino, the executive director of the MATA Festival in New York City (founded by Phillip Glass), Patricia Poblador and Joseph Hernandez of the Ripieno Ensemble of Manila in the Phillipines, Jan, and HKNME conductor Lio Kuokman. We took the photo at the end of the day and William Lane, the founder of the HKNME had already departed a bit early to pick up his family in Causeway Bay, so he’s not in the photo but he was an essential part of the discussion.
Experience has taught me the importance of understanding the most obvious facts, the elements right under you nose, the ones you see but don’t pay enough attention to. For the New Music Asia Gathering in Hong Kong the most obvious fact was who is sitting at the table and how that differed from what was performed at the tenth anniversary concert the night before. Long term strategy need not be impossible to comprehend nor does it need expensive consultates. You simply need awareness.
And in this case Jan and I made a plain as sunshine case that could shape ongoing regional discussions and cooperation for next steps. All the composers performed for the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble’s Tenth Anniversary were from the East Asian dragons of China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, as well as a representative from New York City.
The first New Music Gathering Asia planning meeting?
All from Southeast Asian tigers, Los Angeles and New York City. Understanding the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of programming is a major component of success. What you say “no” to is more important than what you say “yes” to. How you shape your next steps will determine if your ideas are inspiring enough to secure financial resources.
And so the conversation settled on the important topic of identity, on why.
Because, in a nutshell, new music in Asia exists in a complicated post colonial environment. And here again is the obvious. The sheer presence of composers and performers mastering Western instruments is a key ingredient that needs clarity.
Hong Kong must confront London and now understand Beijing, the Phillipines have ghosts with both Madrid and México City, Hà Nội lives in a potential Parisian hangover, Indonesia grapples with Amsterdam, Singapore and Malaysia with London and the faded British Empire nostalgia that animated Brexit. Civil war is a logical result of any revolution against a colonial power, factions see different paths to independence and often violently disagree with each other. There are real and often tragic unforeseen consequences to independence.
I have a motto that programming is not for the faint of heart. There is a difference between an event and defining a cultural mission. New music, like a poetry reading, is vulnerable and the margin for financial mistakes zero.
Without awareness of all these whys for the sheer existence of a new music community in Asia, clarity will be elusive. Without inspirational clarity project resources will be hard to find. Jan and I have lived this story, successfully saying to potential donors in the United States “Hello, we want our ensemble to be the first American group to perform in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and in Hà Nội since the Việt Nam War and we need X amount of money.” Experience is the best teacher, so perhaps our being the oldest voice at the table was helpful, and every person’s voice was engaged, a real joy pointing to a bright future.
Jan and I are ten thousand pages and counting into rigorous and ongoing study of the history that envelops the landscape of our work in Việt Nam with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. And that means curiosity about China, the British Opium Wars, the split between Malaysia and Singapore, Laos and Cambodia, Indonesia, the 20th century rise and fall of Japan, a persistent curiosity about the world we now have to shape culturally for our generation in the 21st century is important.
Which brings me to a recommendation for my curious reader.
My loudest applause for a good use of your time is to read the four volume 1500 pages of the Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer of Indonesia. A maze of language tells the story of the first Indonesian journalist of the Dutch East Indies, from the late 1880s to the 1920s. I was dizzy from a narrative demonstrating how the disruption of language formed the true backbone of colonial power. It’s the only book that could use subtitles! A scene might juxtapose characters speaking in Dutch with English and French, Malay, Chinese, Japanese, High Javanese, Low Javanese and other dialects all swirling around. The Buru Quartet is a tour-de-force of literature.
And Toer gave me a Golden Rule defining the cultural differences between the developed world with the developing world. Anyone who ignores educating themselves about the impacts and results of European colonialism in shaping our present day headlines defines a person building and living in an Ivory Tower.
“Shame,” writes Toer, “is not a concern of European civilization.”
New music is a great vehicle to unpack that statement for a better future!
The engaging conversations continued the next morning as Jan and I had a nine to noon breakfast with Sharon Chan and William Lane. That’s always a good sign, one gets to the truth when you say goodbye. Which in this case is “until we meet again, and soon.”
And that brings me back to my extended family nostalgia and Hong Kong. I know full well I am from California and continue to love the Golden State and all it represents in a dysfunctional American political landscape. But I also love Asia, the friends we have in Hong Kong are dear to Jan and me and have taken care of us in memorable ways. I have a few more posts under construction when my schedule lightens up over the Christmas holidays, so more stories are to come!
”Uncle, we don’t want you to get lost, so please hold our hands as we walk down the mountain!” implored Janelle and Jaylene Ho, the daughters of our friends Dennis Ho and Ashly Lam. Jan and I met them on a boat in Hạ Long Bay in Việt Nam, and just when you thought Facebook was the incarnation of pure evil, along comes friendships that never would have existed before. We just need to find a better and more harmonious balance.
Dennis sent me a message when he saw we were coming to Hong Kong. We worked out a convenient time and learned about the Chung Yeung Festival. On this day each year, Hong Kongers are to climb a mountain to ward off evil spirits, With a world challenged and filled with tension, we’re happy to say that their daughters Janelle and Jaylene took such good care of us that indeed I did not get lost.
And that’s where extended family comes into the picture again. Dennis and Ashly put their daughters in charge of Jan and me being safely guided on our hike on Victoria Peak, with its stunning views of Hong Kong and its harbor. We’ve never had better guides!
And my long ago memories of Harry Woo, reading to me in Cantonese from characters and calligraphy that still fascinate me, all started resolving into a happy present tense this visit to Hong Kong. On the personal side this meant hiking Victoria Peak with new friends we met on a boat in Việt Nam. And on the professional side it meant talking with new friends about a cultural scene that is itself a true Ascending Dragon.
The future is bright when you have friends in Hong Kong!
Best, best, best,