A favourite pastime of concert-goers and armchair critics is putting together their ideal concert seasons. Select your favourite repertoire, throw in some conductors and soloists you admire, sprinkle a few ‘unjustly neglected’ works by ‘unjustly neglected’ composers and you have your ideal season, yes? What could be simpler? Alas, the real world and economic factors come into play. Your fantasy season works for you… but will the rest of the public buy it? Raff Wilson, Director of Artistic Planning of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra offered valuable insights into his planning process ahead of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season, which contains some real corkers.

Raff Wilson
Raff Wilson
Music Director Jaap van Zweden is conducting a lot of Mahler in the coming season, with the First, Third and Sixth Symphonies on the bill. “Hong Kong loves Mahler!” enthuses Wilson. “Maybe it’s because the buzz of this city creates its own brand of Mahlerian angst, or maybe just because of the huge architecture of the music. But it was definitely time to explore the symphonies again, and there has been a lot of interest in these concerts.”

But audiences cannot survive on Mahler alone. For Wilson, the important aspect of planning is a question of balance. “In these seasons we do a lot of heavy German repertoire – Wagner and Mahler. We try to leaven that out with other great music and, of course, with more popular concert projects. We also make it a priority to reach out to audiences who might never have heard an orchestra before. I’m very happy that our Broadway concerts with Lea Salonga [a well known singer and actress from the Philippines] this coming September will be presented both for our ‘heartland’ audience, and also for the huge Philippine community in Hong Kong, who are usually very under-represented in our hall.”

Part of that balance includes promoting the work of Chinese composers and artists, which Wilson sees as “a cornerstone of our programming and a part of our civic function as an orchestra. In recent years we have worked closely with established composers like Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, and we have also featured emerging Chinese – and specifically Hong Kong - composers alike. There are many innovative voices out there, and we want to showcase them. As for Chinese performing artists – they have a key presence in every season in Hong Kong.”

Among the more unusual works on this season’s programme is Andy Akiho’s Ricochet – a concerto for violin, percussion… and ping pong! “Ricochet features two champion ping pong players,” explains Wilson, “accompanied by the orchestra and violin and percussion soloists. He has created something quite ingenious – the sounds of ping pong being so characteristic, the rhythmic nature of a really good ping pong rally, and on other layers some demanding and excellent writing for orchestra and soloists. We think it will be a hit.”

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden has certainly helped raise the profile of the orchestra. The Dutch conductor is much in demand and was announced, last January, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. “Jaap is a force of nature,” Wilson muses. “On the podium he is always thrilling: the focus and intensity can knock one’s socks off, and our audience loves the power of his performances. And beyond the compelling energy, he is also a musician’s musician. He has amazing discipline, for himself and for others. That kind of strength bears fruit in the music. The people of Hong Kong – and soon New York – have one of the world’s great conductors at the helm of their orchestra.”

This January, van Zweden will again be at the helm for the third part of the HK Phil’s Ring Cycle in concert. Wilson describes the first two operas as “a revelation”. The performance of Das Rheingold has already been released (on Naxos) to great acclaim. “A concert performance puts the music and orchestra front and centre, and it’s wonderful to see our musicians making it happen. For many of us it’s new territory, so there is the thrill of discovery and the feeling that nothing we’re doing is routine. We combine the concerts with a lot of educational activity, to bring the story and themes of the Ring Cycle to Hong Kong people. And we have assembled casts which any opera house in the world would be proud of.” Simon O’Neill, Matthias Goerne and Heidi Melton head the cast gathered for Siegfried.

Jaap van Zweden conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic © Cheung Chi-Wai | HK Phil
Jaap van Zweden conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Cheung Chi-Wai | HK Phil
Wilson reports strong ticket sales. Are audiences local or do they travel from further afield? “We’ve just had our strongest subscription season in the orchestra’s history, so the word is definitely out about what is happening with the orchestra. The HK Phil audience is overwhelmingly local – that is to say, people who live in Hong Kong, which is a very diverse city. Big projects like the Ring Cycle are attracting concert-goers from more distant places though and we hope to build on that. Hong Kong is such a unique city, really ideal as a cultural tourism destination. One can see the sights, do some shopping, and also catch a world-class Siegfried!”

The growth in the classical music market in Hong Kong, and in China in general, has been immense. As Wilson describes it, “The present and future of classical music lies here, in this part of the world. What’s happening in China is unprecedented. So much activity and interest, so many young musicians. In Hong Kong, it’s a similar situation. Just in my near neighbourhood there are half a dozen small music schools training up young musicians. That’s a whole generation of future performers, concert-goers, music-lovers. The future of our art form in Hong Kong is bright.”    

Click here for full listings of the HK Phil's 2016/17 season.


Article sponsored by Hong Kong Philharmonic Society Ltd.