Tuning into homeland melodies
Mak Ka-lok left a shining career conducting in Austria and Russia to return to HK after three decades so that he may give city musicians a platform to perform professionally. Chitralekha Basu reports.
After spending three decades and a half conducting some of the finest orchestras in Russia and Austria, Mak Ka-lok decided to come back home to Hong Kong.
Mak is one of the few people of Asian origin to have conducted a Russian orchestra. For his contribution toward leading the Voronezh State Philharmonic Orchestra he was awarded by the Russian Federal Assembly (parliament) in 2000. In 2011 the Vienna government invited him to compose a piece to mark World Peace Day. He composed The Bat and the Sun, a symphonic poem, based on the text of an African writer, to play on the occasion.
Mak could have been happy guest conducting across Europe and Russia, leading the occasional concert in China, sometimes. The album recordings of the classical music concerts he produced under the banners of Hugo, BMG and Chi Mei in China have always found a steady market. With BMG he had cut an album featuring the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto and Yellow River Piano Concerto — written by the He Zhanhao-Chen Gang duo — compositions he had conducted the China Philharmonic Orchestra playing in 1992. The album won a silver disc prize.
And yet Mak chose to come back and settle down in his hometown — a city he had left at age 20 in 1976, to study violin at Die Hochschule fuer Musik Freiburg (University of Music Freiburg) in Germany. He had wanted to make the move since 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s reunification with its motherland. It was Mak’s contract with Hugo that held him back for years. But right from the moment of the reunification, Mak knew he would have to return where his roots were.
As a young violin player participating in international competitions — the first such happened in the UK, when he was still a Form Four student of St. Paul’s Hong Kong — Mak had always felt a bit awkward, not quite knowing if it was Britain or China he was representing. “Even when I won a few competitions, people would shoot amused glances at me. I was the man from no country,” says Mak, sitting comfortably at the cosy clubhouse of the apartment complex in the south of Hong Kong Island, where he now lives. “Now that Hong Kong is part of China I am happy to belong to a country which is in global reckoning.”
Promoting local talent
His homecoming had a mission attached to it — to help trained musicians from the city find their feet in the professional arena.
There were still too few openings for the number of musicians Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts was producing, to say nothing of the returnees who had trained abroad. So Mak founded Global Symphony Orchestra (GSO) where Hong Kong’s young musicians might get their first break, performing alongside wellknown music talents from across the world. The GSO team has performed with the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in August 2016, for instance; and with Hong Kong’s own Warren Mok (tenor) and Rao Lan (soprano). At the Musicarama Music Festival in mid-2015, GSO performed with renowned musicians from Latvia, Belgium, Austria and Germany.
Evidently, the idea is as much to promote talented musicians from the city as it is to let them have a taste of wider exposure. “In today’s world one cannot survive alone,” says Mak, giving his reasons for including musical talents, sometimes even stalwarts, from abroad in the GSO concerts. “We have to live by cooperating with each other. I would like us to have a global outlook, to have higher aims and achieve higher levels in music.”
The maestro usually likes to spice up a predominantly Western classical music concert by adding a dash of popular culture. At GSO’s upcoming Jan 2 show, featuring some of the ever-familiar masterpieces of Western classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, there will also be a couple Cantonese pop songs, sung by William Hu.
Mak is quite unorthodox about the way he designs each concert, often paring down an hour-long composition into just one or two select movements. He has drawn flak for playing around with classical compositions that belong in the canon but remains unfazed by the criticism.
At the Jan 2 concert too Mak will present just the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the second movement from Piano Concerto No 21, Opus 467. That’s his way to ensure people listen to the slow movement which is sometimes lost on a section of the audience when the complete three-movement piece is played.
Certain people in Hong Kong, especially if they are not used to listening to classical music compositions as a matter of habit, do not have patience or the time for an hour-long Mahler symphony movement, says Mak. He believes giving his audience a sampler of the big feast is still better than not going there at all.
T he other unconventional, though not unprecedented, element to Mak’s concerts is that he likes talking to his audience. At the upcoming concert too, between leading the orchestra playing Edvard Grieg compositions — Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 Opus 46, “Morning Mood” Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16 — Mak will share his experience of driving around the mountains near Edvard Grieg museum in Troldhaugen, Bergen, Norway, and describe the landscape.
Slowly conductors are beginning to step down from the podium and interact with the audience, says Mak. He had seen Simon Rattle do this while conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. “The trend these days is to talk to each other, create a feeling of closeness,” he says. “Classical music is not about separating people but bringing them closer together.”
Celebrating Hong Kong
For many years now, Aliena Wong has been a wellspring of support in Mak’s life — both personal and professional. Herself a distinguished pianist who studied at the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory in Russia, Wong too has performed in different ven- ues across the UK, United States, Czech Republic and Russia. She played a major role in building GSO and now oversees its activities, apart from being the chairperson and resident soloist pianist in the orchestra.
Wong is reticent to a fault when it comes to talking to the press. And Mak too won’t say much about their partnership except that the GSO is the fruit of their common goal to give back to Hong Kong. Then one cannot fault Wong if she believes her performance at the piano will do a better job of talking on her behalf. One only needs to listen to any of her engagingly eloquent solo renditions to know she has her heart in the right place.
The couple’s next big project is planned as a tribute to Hong Kong. Scheduled for May 31, the concert, titled “Dream of Hong Kong”, will be a medley of Chinese and Western music, composed by Mak.
“I think Hong Kong should cooperate with the Chinese mainland to have a common dream and that’s why I wrote the music in celebra- tion of 20 years of the reunification,” says Mak of his brand-new composition, based on a script by Henry Fong Yun-wah.
Of the several different awards he has picked up during his distinguished career, expectedly, there have been a few happy surprises along the way. After a performance GSO did together with Wenzhou City Symphony Orchestra in Zhejiang province, someone presented him with an enormous scroll, running, almost, from one end of the stage to the other, painted with exquisite C hinese calligraphy. Translated in English the phrase would read, “Miracle Sound.”
Utterly moved as he was by that experience, Mak feels the only reward to beat such extraordinary display of heartfelt appreciation would be a State recognition from the central government, if it were to come his way.
“That’s my dream,” he says, succinctly.
Classical music is not about separating people but bringing them closer together.”
Maestro Mak (center) at a performance from the Mak Ka-lok World Symphony Concert series at the Hong Kong City Hall.