Hong Kong – To say that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused difficulties is an understatement – and for an industry that relies on live audiences in physical settings, the problem has been enormous during the last two years. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil), like its counterparts throughout the world, has had to deal with a lot of uncertainty, notably in terms of concert cancellations. Even big occasions like Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebration were not spared.
“We wanted to present all the Beethoven piano concertos. In the end, we could only present Concerto No 2 with Lang Lang. Either the venues have been closed, or it was challenging to find the conductors and the soloists to play,” says HK Phil chief executive Benedikt Fohr.
But the orchestra persevered by exploring alternative ways of performing concerts. “We presented Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 and Symphony No 7 online. In the end, it worked very nicely,” he says.
Fohr, who has held executive positions with orchestras in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, assumed his role with the HK Phil less than a year before the onset of the pandemic. For the past two years, he has focused on steadying the ship and leading the orchestra through a learning curve.
“We faced venue closures … we had 50 per cent capacity or 85 per cent capacity – we had to react to different situations,” Fohr says. “The travel restrictions were also a very important factor. It made us work more with local artists.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic appears to have strengthened the relationship between Macau-born and Hong Kong-raised musician Lio Kuokman and the HK Phil. In December 2020, the accomplished pianist-turned-conductor was appointed as the orchestra’s resident conductor after many years of collaboration.
“My relationship with the Hong Kong Philharmonic actually goes back around 10 years, starting when I was still a student, and still a pianist,” he says.
Lio has been devoted to classical music since childhood, when he attended a concert and became fascinated by “the man with the chopstick”. He trained as a pianist at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and also studied at the Juilliard School in New York before learning to become a conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
He went on to collaborate with orchestras around the world, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony. “I normally travel almost 300 days a year in different cities, for different orchestras. But because of Covid, I spent more time in Hong Kong,” Lio says.
In October 2020, amid Covid-related travel disruptions, Lio was asked to step in for HK Phil music director Jaap van Zweden to conduct the season-opening concert. “And then we had more projects coming up in those few months,” he recalls. “They asked: ‘How about we give you this title of resident conductor?’ ”
Also emerging from the pandemic were many creative ideas to bring classical music to public spaces during times when going into concert halls was not a possibility.
In March and April last year, the orchestra teamed up with the MTR Corporation to present the “Phil Your MTR Ride with Music” campaign. MTR passengers were treated to the HK Phil’s performances of five popular works by renowned composers Dvořák, Mozart, Shostakovich and Wagner, which were broadcast in stations and trains across the city.
A special music video was also created for the in-train TVs, featuring Lio alongside concertmaster Jing Wang, piccolo player Linda Stuckey and more than 30 other musicians. Fohr also made a cameo appearance along with MTR chairman Rex Auyeung.
“It really was not easy. You had to have the orchestra in the station at midnight to film it, and there were a few different filming locations … [including] one afternoon in a compartment inside the train,” Lio says, who last year was named one of Hong Kong’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons by Junior Chamber International.
Apart from that campaign, the HK Phil launched a brand-new programme called “Phil Your Life” in July last year, which fused music with food, wellness and storytelling. The programme is designed to brighten up people’s lives in a lighthearted way by drawing amusing connections between music and daily life. It featured a series of online concerts that audiences at home could watch on the HK Phil’s Facebook page, or in full on the orchestra’s website.
Fohr says the orchestra has seized every opportunity to keep bringing classical music to audiences. Last November, its annual outdoor performance, Swire Symphony Under The Stars, returned to Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront, but with an added twist: it was live-streamed to the West Kowloon Cultural District as well as through the HK Phil’s website, Facebook page and YouTube channel, allowing more people to enjoy the extravaganza as it happened.
The HK Phil also performed at West Kowloon for both in-person and broadcast audiences during the New Year’s Eve countdown concert organised by the Hong Kong Tourism Board – which took place just one week before performance venues were closed again under social-distancing measures.
“From September to December 2021, we were able to present concerts – so we did a lot of recordings, which we put online every week to entertain the audience,” Fohr says.
This resilience is seen across the entire orchestra, as its members make every effort to stay connected with one another as well as with their audience. During those weeks and months when they were not able to perform on stage, the HK Phil’s musicians created short videos in which they played their instruments and explained how they worked.
“For our staff, the challenging thing was the frustration and the unpredictability of the situation. But even when we had to start again, to plan and then to cancel and to change, everybody seemed motivated to make it happen,” Fohr says. “As we are very close to the reopening of the venues, everybody is very much looking forward to bringing music on stage, so this is quite exciting.”
Many details are still being ironed out for the HK Phil’s 2022/23 season, but there are big plans in the works, starting with a public concert scheduled for April 29. Both van Zweden and Lio are set to return to Hong Kong for a number of programmes, and there will also be collaborations with the Hong Kong Ballet and Opera Hong Kong.
“We consider ourselves the musical ambassador of Hong Kong, so we are hoping to finally go back to the mainland. We also have plans for November for Shanghai and for Guangzhou,” Fohr says. “We really want to be part of the Greater Bay Area and the mainland’s music activities, and to show our leading role as a world-class orchestra.”
And next year will be a significant one for the city’s flagship orchestra.
“The 2023/24 season will be our 50th anniversary, and it is very important to mark this milestone. We want to really celebrate it with all of Hong Kong, and there are important projects coming up in the season. Hopefully by then, we will be back to normal,” Fohr says.