Music Man

New artistic planning director of HK Philharmonic Orchestra talks about from being a nobody to making an international debut at the BBC Proms

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Ask composer Lam Fung about an thorny issue in the local classical music scene, you will get an earful. Young artists, particularly those straight out of university, feel “entitled to be picked up by top-class orchestras.” He thinks their expectation is unrealistic.

“I understand the request but it won’t be beneficial to an orchestra, or the musicians themselves, if selection is made based on ethnicity. It’s quality that counts,” he says.

“That said, there should be more opportunities for emerging composers and performers. An example is composition workshops, which allow them to rehearse and record their music with a top-class orchestra.”

Strong words from Lam, who resumed the director role of artistic planning at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

Local musicians hoped that, as a Hongkonger, he would promote them.

Lam’s new position makes him a force to be reckoned with. He has a say on the hiring of conductors and performers, music selection and commissioning new works.

Many might not like Lam’s answer, but there is a reason for it. Good musicians are never produced in a greenhouse environment. They are made in the thousands of hours of practices, endless exploration, and years of lost sleep over financial security.

That was how Lam was made. His list of achievements include three BBC commissions, two from the Hong Kong Philharmonic, performances at big concert halls, and tours in China, Europe, as well as Asia next month.

Not bad for a composer who just turned 37.

The cellist, and son of former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying, has a doctoral degree in composition. He initially wanted to go into acoustical engineering, not contemporary classical music composition.

“I was raised with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a musician,” he says. “Being an acoustics consultant was a middle-of-the-road career path as it involves physics and music. I would have become a borderline architect – a safe choice in eyes of most parents.”

Lam studied under two respected British composers: Michael Zev Gordon and Michael Finnissy. The pedigree didn’t translate into instant success, though. In the first five years, his biggest paycheck came from a stranger he met on Old Bond Street, who paid him £50 for a sheet of piano music.

Lam hopped in and out of jobs to survive in London: concert hall usher, CD seller at Tower Records, administrative coordinator at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, music arranger, to name a few. “I was even an extra in Keanu Reeves’ film 47 Ronin,” he says.

The breakthrough came in 2008. Then 29, Lam landed his first paid commission. The BBC paid him HK$100,000 for the score Unlocking. He had previously composed Illumination for the BBC unpaid in 2005.

“My musician friends joked that I got paid six-figure for a 23-minute work. But I spent two to three months to writing it,” he says. “There isn’t an obvious career path for composers. Most work freelance. Of course, financial pressure is eased when a big commission comes. But as young artists, you need to build up a portfolio and that means unpaid work.”

In 2012, Lam received another important commission from the British broadcaster. He composed Endless Forms for the BBC Proms. He was the youngest Chinese, and the first Hongkonger, to appear in the most prestigious orchestral festival in Britain.

“It was a commission every composer dreams of. My music was played by the flagship BBC Symphony Orchestra, and broadcast live to the world on Radio 3. It was a full house concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which sits almost 5,700 people,” he recalls.

“I couldn’t take credit for the attendance. People went for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But to me, it felt like going full circle. My parents took me to a concert there at 12.”

Critics said Lam’s performance reminded them of French composers Claude Debussy, Raphael Thierry and Olivier Messiaen.

The nicest compliment he received that night was: “I didn’t expect contemporary classical music to be so enjoyable.”

His parents were in the audience. “My father didn’t tell me he was proud of me. He only said he thought my music was interesting. Neither he nor my mother are into classical music. They prefer dance,” he says. “But I am happy that they now go to my concerts regularly. Recently, my father said he sensed a hint of Buddhism in my latest work, Quintessence. It was exactly what I had intended.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 24, 2017.

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