Hong Kong Arts Festival - International Festival More Relevant than Ever in its 31st Year by Brian C. Thompson
/ June 4, 2003
Kong, March 9, 2003
The Thirty-first edition of the
Hong Kong Arts Festival closed this evening with the Hamburg Ballet's tribute to
dance great Valslav Nijinsky. It brought to an end 108 performances over
twenty-four days at venues throughout this city of 6.5 million.
Hong Kong's recent economic
troubles seem not to have had much impact on the box office. With total
attendance this year at 97,500 and average attendance reaching 90 percent, the
festival managed to sustain the numbers achieved in recent years. Hong Kong
residents may well see the arts as a form of refuge from the ongoing recession,
although excellent programming was certainly a factor.
With a wide program of theater, dance and music, the HKAF has long balanced
big name, mainstream acts and cutting edge ensembles. Since its 1973 début, the
HKAF has brought to this city many of the world's greatest artists. The
inaugural edition of the festival alone featured Erich Leinsdorf and Edo de
Waart conducting the London Philharmonic, Sir Yehudi Menuhin and his Festival
Orchestra, and Seiji Ozawa leading the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in
performances of Takamitsu's November Steps.
Over the years, most leading
artists from the classical amusic world have stopped in Hong Kong at some point.
Among Canadian artists and ensemble appearing here have been the Montreal
Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company.
This year's Festival featured
William Christie and Les Art Florissants, the Stuttgart Opera, and Kurt Masur
conducting the Orchestre National de France. Perhaps the biggest draw was piano
wunderkind Yundi Li. Since winning the 2000 Chopin International Competition, Li
has gained the sort of celebrity in Asia that is rarely enjoyed by classical
musicians. Needless to say, his appearances with Masur and the ONF, and both of
his solo recitals sold out very quickly.
This is not to say that this is strictly a Classical music festival. Although
it started as essentially that, it quickly brought in Asian arts as well jazz,
contemporary dance and theatre troupes ranging from the Royal Shakespeare
Company to Clio Lane to La La La Human Steps. Steve Reich's Three Tales
and Laurie Anderson's Happiness each drew large and appreciative
audiences, as did Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, and the Chinese
silent film classic Little Toys, with new music from Taiwanese composer
The HKAF is also an opportunity for local audiences to see their own artists
in an international context. The Gold Chrysanthemums was this year's featured
Cantonese opera, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra gave a concert, and with the
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra away on tour in Europe, the Hong Kong
Sinfonietta under conductor Yip Wing-Sie made its début at the
Successful programming and
careful marketing aside, another reason behind the HKAF's continued success has
been efforts to fill seats with young people. Festival statistics show the
median age of audience members to be about 35, making it one of the youngest for
a festival of this type. According to the Festival's executive director Douglas
Gautier, having donors (such as Citibank and HSBC) underwrite student tickets
not only enables young people to attend more events but also helps to ensure
that the HKAF maintains its place in the rapidly changing city.
of Hong Kong
To a casual observer, it may
seem odd that the Hong Kong Government has not fully exploited the festival's
success. In many ways it is a living expression of Hong Kong's fabled 'East
meets West' image. Last year the city adopted the slogan 'Asia's World City,'
partly in response to increased pressure from Shanghai. What better way to show
it than through culture ?
Not surprisingly, Gautier, who
has been associated with the Festival for many years, sees greater cooperation
with Hong Kong's Tourist Association as an important component in the HKAF's
continued success. He hopes to see tour packages available for international
visitors in time for next year's festival. Visitors in 2004 could attend
performances by Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Komische
Oper Berlin, or the Compania Nacional de Danza, among those confirmed thus far.
Organisers will announce the full program in August and begin advanced booking
Admittedly, there are
limitations that the international cultural tourist is likely to spot very
quickly. The HKAF lacks the carnival atmosphere that surrounds great arts
showcases. A few free outdoor events would go a long way to redressing this.
With the Festival taking place during the comfortable winter months, outdoor
concerts or film screenings would be a good way to bring the Festival and
visitors into the community. With consistency on its side, the Hong Kong Arts
Festival will at the very least remain the centerpiece the annual arts calendar.
Whether or not it achieves the status of the Edinburgh Festival - or Montréal's
jazz festival, for that matter - remains to be seen.
Postscript May 26, 2003
Soon after this report was filed
the SARS virus appeared in Hong Kong. As of this day, 1,725 people have
contracted the disease and 266 have died. Although the virus has nearly vanished
and the World Health Organization has declared that Hong Kong is once again a
safe travel destination, it has been an arduous ten weeks.
In addition to the loss of life,
the economic and psychological effects on this outward-looking city have been
enormous. Our busy streets emptied as tourism declined and residents simply
stayed home. Local arts organisations soldiered on, playing to nearly empty
halls while international artists - Mikhail Pletnev, the Borodin String Quartet,
the Rolling Stones, and many others - cancelled their performances
Life is now returning to normal
and the government is planning a massive advertising campaign to bring
international travellers back to Hong Kong. The performing arts will be a part
of this "re-launching," with pop singer Ricky Martin among the first names
mentioned for large, outdoor concerts. These confidence-boosting measures will
keep many in the arts community watching closely for some quick results, but the
long-term effects of the virus remain to be seen.