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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK - Con­tact the writer at basu@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

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.”

con­duc­tor-com­poser

Mak Ka-lok,

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Mae­stro Mak (cen­ter) at a per­for­mance from the Mak Ka-lok World Sym­phony Con­cert se­ries at the Hong Kong City Hall.

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