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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Is it Chinese, or Is it an Orchestra?

For those who don’t live in Hong Kong—sometimes even for those who do—the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra can be a baffling institution. Is it traditional, or is it modern? For a town that thinks nothing of wrapping a slice of bacon around a piece of shrimp (hardly a traditional Cantonese delicacy), this shouldn’t even be a question. The HKCO is fusion cuisine for the ears.

Compared to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and even the more localized Hong Kong Sinfonietta, both of which have the weight of bearing Western tradition in a strange environment on their shoulders, the HKCO wears tradition lightly and develops its repertory aggressively. In three decades, the orchestra has commissioned more than 1,700 new works and arrangements, making it a role model for any musical institution in the world in cultivating a repertory for the future.

I’m pretty sure none of that matters to the audience, though, and the orchestra has managed to cultivate one of the most fiercely devoted followings in town. This has to do with the playing, which bridges the whopping gap that most organizations face. How do you reach a weekly subscription series that would satisfy audiences from both The New York Pops and the American Composers Orchestra? By remaining playful even in art and finding gravitas even in frivolous pieces. Compare the HKCO version of Tan Dun’s “Eroica” Symphony for YouTube (arranged for Chinese instruments by resident conductor Chew Hee-Chiat) with the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Posted by Ken Smith

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