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The Mahler Society of Hong Kong: Cultural Identity and Cantonese Pop Songs

img  Tobias Fischer

What’s your favourite Mahler symphony?
The Ninth Symphony, after my trip to Luzern in August. The music is an insight of a man’s view into death and how to "embrace" it. Mahler’s Sixth & Seventh are on my top list, too.


Why Mahler?
When I first listened to Mahler's First conducted by Bruno Walter on Columbia Records, I was amazed about the texture and the beauty of the notes. A message struck in my brain - “it’s him”. When the CD went up into the third movement, I discovered that the theme is similar to one of my favourite Cantonese pop songs.

What are the typical traits of a Mahlerite?

Mahlerites normally have experience in overcoming adversity. They know the world is complex and so do their hearts. Everyone can find what they need in the music of Mahler. It is full of all the different elements of the world; Mahler is one of the few composers who could capture these elements brilliantly and probe people to identify the darker sides of their hearts. His music also implores us to discover what the meaning of life is.
The interpretation of Mahler's music should not be fixed. Every conductor has different thoughts on it. A member of our society told me that once he listens to more and more of Mahler’s music, he would still like to get another recording to compare the subtle differences. Mahlerites are keen to squeeze out every meaning and element in his music. Therefore, many fellow members are avid collectors of his recordings.
Mahlerites treat him as a God in music and, scarily as it may seem, their devotion is more or less like a religion.

How did you go from that epiphany of hearing Bruno Walter conduct to the founding of the Hong Kong Mahler society?
The idea came up ahead of the premiere of the Mahler six by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra ("HKPO") in 2003. There was a talk jointly held by the HKPO and a local music magazine - HiFi Review. After the talk, a group of us briefly discussed whether we should found a Mahler Society in Hong Kong. Still, things were going slow until the advent of Facebook. It is more convenient for us to contact members and promote our activities online. Our society currently includes a membership of over a hundred and continues to grow.

What does the work of the society entail?

The mission of the HKMS is to inform everyone that, apart from Beethoven and Mozart, the inhabitants of Hong Kong should also explore and experience the music of Mahler as a new way of appreciating classical music. We also strive to tell everyone that our listening taste should not be limited to the classics, but be open-minded to explore the unknown.
Amongst our core members of five to six, we also travel abroad to concerts. For instance, we arranged tours both last year and this year to concerts conducted by Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

From what I’ve heard, Hong Kong still seem to be in a fledgling state with regards to classical music, but with lots of promises for the future.
In brief, there are four major kinds of audiences in Hong Kong:
1. Enthusiasts who are keen to travel abroad for concerts and/or operas. They rarely go to concerts in Hong Kong as they think the acoustics of the concert halls and the quality of the orchestras are not yet up to par with the standards of world-class musical institutions.
2. Enthusiasts who will also visit local concerts.
3. Young audiences, aged between fourteen and thirty five, including students in high schools, colleges or in the work force.
4. Parents who would like to nurture their children on classical music appreciation. As there is formally no classical music education in secondary schools as a subject, there is a strong dependency on professional orchestras and outreach educational programs to help promote classical music. It is not surprising to notice that certain parents also treat classical music, meaning, for example, learning an instrument, as a token of admissions into high-ranking schools. Thus, quite a number of students pass grade eight or other ABRSM (an organisation specialising in music assessment) exams at a young age. However, this kind of “enforced learning” usually doesn't spark interest in classical music in young children.

Things are changing, though, aren't they?

A fundamental change is currently underway. As the concept of corporate social responsibility is emerging into the business world – for example UBS-sponsoring; Swire Group-sponsoring - there are more corporate sponsorships from the traditional Hong Kong companies being infused into the cultural sector. And through the West Kowloon Cultural District (“WKCD”), which is currently in the stage of a public engagement exercise - expect it to open  around 2014/15 – as well as the building of a highway railway network (the station is next to the WKCD) set to connect it to other Chinese cities, the government is trying to position Hong Kong strategically as the cultural hub in South East Asia. Better facilities, and a devoted classical music concert hall, should boost both the arts and culture identity in Hong Kong.

How come the Mahler society draws such a remarkably large percentage of young members?
Mahler has been getting more popular in Hong Kong over the last six years. There are some key issues in relation to this development:
Firstly, Maestro Edo de Waart became the artistic director of the HKPO in 2004. He gradually introduced the audience to the world of Mahler and the late Romantics, and raised the musical standards of HKPO substantially. This has attracted a larger audience to concerts. I observe that increasing numbers of students attend Mahler-based concerts recently. Also, there are more music graduates who teach in high schools and the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts (HKAPA). There was nearly no formal music class in high schools in HK previously, or at most, it was limited to singing. The HKAPA has also drawn more and more highly-talented graduates, some of whom are Mahler devotees. Then there is a rise in the numbers of community orchestras. These orchestras treat the music of Mahler as a milestone and challenge during the course of their musical life. It's hard to imagine, but the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth was in fact performed by such a community orchestra, instead of the HKPO!
Finally, there are more resources devoted to the nurturing of traditional - outstanding - high schools. Three years ago, a high school orchestra played the last movement of Mahler Five, which they chose freely,at the music festival in Hong Kong. After that, the music of Mahler and his contemporaries have increased in popularity. In 2010, similar caliber high schools began to introduce the music of Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich to the music festival.

How did the city celebrate his birthday?

Unfortunately, there wasn't even a single concert to mark this important date.  July 7th coincidentally marked the opening night of the Chamber Music Festival in Hong Kong, but his Piano Quartet was not programmed by the organizers. I believe Hong Kong is one of the few major cities in the world which did not have any Mahler concerts around his birthday.

The interview was facilitated by Patrick P.L. Lam, who co-founded the HKMS and opened a Mahler society in Toronto, which you can find under the following link.

Homepage: The Mahler Society of Hong Kong on Facebook

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