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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 9

Hong Kong Arts Festival - International Festival More Relevant than Ever in its 31st Year

by Brian C. Thompson / June 4, 2003

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Hong 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.

Diverse Program

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 Mark Chan.

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 festival.


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.

Symbol 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 in November.

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.

website : http://www.hk.artsfestival.org/

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 here.

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.

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