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Chamber music festival raises the bar

Cho-Liang Lin
South China Morning Post

By Sam Olluver

The Chamber Music Festival's new artistic director Jimmy Lin is determined to add value with educational satellite events including masterclasses, open rehearsals and free concerts

The 3rd Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival (ICMF) will ring in the New Year as the city's first major classical music event of 2012.

Opening on January 11, it sports a line-up of top-flight international artists in programmes that feature both comfort-zone favourites and intriguing rarities in six concerts and a clutch of outreach events. Eighteen performers from the mainland, Japan, South Korea, Europe, Canada and the US will be teaming up with a further eight from Hong Kong's own pool of talent.

While the format of the festival follows that of its first two years, the guiding hand is new: Jimmy Lin, the Taiwanese-American violinist, takes over from cellist Trey Lee Chui-yee as its artistic director.

"My history with this place goes back a long way," the 51-year-old says, having first performed in Hong Kong more than 30 years ago. He has since made regular solo appearances, including during the 1997 handover celebrations, when he was guest artist with both the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Asian Youth Orchestra.

Lin is no stranger to the demands of staging music extravaganzas, having founded the Taipei International Music Festival in 1997 (the largest classical music festival in the history of Taiwan) and being the music director of the La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest in California since 2001.

The ICMF brochure headlines a quotation about Lin from the Los Angeles Times describing him as a "rare combination of virtuosity and humanity". The virtuoso tag is exemplified by the 1989 Gramophone Recording of the Year award for his CD of the Nielsen and Sibelius violin concertos. But what about the reference to humanity? "I have no idea," Lin says. It doesn't take long, however, to turn up a few pointers to the possible reason.

In October, he had completed an eight-day recital tour in Taiwan, when he decided to build on the success of a similar project undertaken only five months earlier. That had so moved him that he resolved to repeat the exercise.

"We decided not to do just yet another concert tour, but to do something truly meaningful," Lin says. "I went to really remote towns and played full-length recitals in the evening, but each event was preceded by a visit to an even more remote school. I had conversations with the kids who were in the music programmes and presented all sorts of musical challenges to them. It was wonderful."

Lin's commitment to the young is further reflected in his role as a teacher at New York's Juilliard School of Music and Rice University in Texas; he keeps around a dozen students under his wing.

"It's important to receive benefits and help when one is growing up," he says. "And when one is in a position to give back, one has to do it." Ironically, that commitment to education contributed to the undoing of his association with the Taipei International Music Festival that wrapped up in 2003. Lin recalls: "The presenter had this singular vision that it should be a mega-star gathering, that the artists would play and then just leave."

His petitions for more educational offshoots fell on deaf ears and so he parted company with his own brainchild: "I'm so glad that here in Hong Kong we will have this. It's more taxing on the musicians, of course, but I think all my colleagues realise the importance of bringing the music to more people."

Those co-performers have all been hand-picked by Lin to match the repertoire he has chosen.

"I can just intuitively feel who would match whom well," he says, citing his choice of pianist Andreas Haefliger (Switzerland), violinists Kyoko Takezawa (Japan) and German-born Clara-Jumi Kang, plus violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Gary Hoffman (both from the US) for Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor at the closing night gala concert on January 19.

The same programme includes Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor, Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock, for soprano, piano and clarinet, and a selection from Beethoven's Scottish Songs for soprano and piano trio.

Although an East-West flavour permeates two of the other concerts, it isn't for the sake of appeasing those on the fusion bandwagon. Lin is keen to juxtapose the music of Bartok and Tan Dun since they are both nationalistic icons, wrapped up in the traditional music of their respective countries, Hungary and China.

"Tan Dun always maintains that he gets most of his inspiration from Bartok's music," Lin says, which has inspired him to pit Tan's Ghost Opera for string quartet and pipa against Bartok's String Quartet No  3. Having played the repertoire for many years, the performers will descend on Hong Kong City Hall with all the notes under the fingers.

But how does an agreed, corporate interpretation of the music then firm up? Lin believes that his first house rule will take care of any unhelpful assertiveness from individual artists. "For me, there's no prima donna. I always say at a festival like this: everybody can check their ego at the door; everybody's equal."

To illustrate the point, he refers to the opening concert, which features Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as the main work. Lin has assigned four players to take the solo part, one for each season. When they're done, they will withdraw to the second violins and accompany.

That same concert will invite selected teenagers in the audience to submit a critical review of the event, with a view to having the best entry published, having given them pointers in advance on how to listen to the music from a more searching perspective. It's just one of the satellite activities surrounding the mainstream performances that include open rehearsals, masterclasses, chamber music coaching and several free community concerts that are tasters for the full performance package.

Lin will be leading from the front by performing in three of the concerts, giving the audience an opportunity to savour not only his artistry but also the sound of his instrument, the "Titian" Stradivarius which he acquired six years ago.

"It has a very beautiful sound and a very long and distinguished pedigree. It came from one of the greatest years of Stradivarius' output - 1715," he says. "If I sound bad, I can't blame it on the violin any more."