For Asian Youth Orchestra, Mission Is More Than Just Music
By JOYCE LAU August 11, 2015
HONG KONG—Like all good youth orchestra conductors, Richard Pontzious is not always nice to his charges.
“Can't you count to five?” Mr. Pontzious, 71, said last month at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, during the Asian Youth Orchestra's first rehearsal for its 2015 season. Mr. Pontzious, who founded the ensemble 25 years ago in Hong Kong, pointed to the principal second-violinist, who put his bow up a bar too early, before turning his attention to a brass player with the wrong sheet music.
He then added: “Say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Pontzious.' No, that's not funny. In a professional orchestra, you'd be out.”
Mr. Pontzious then addressed the room, filled with young musicians who were going to work together for the next two months. “There is no place to hide — not in my rehearsals,” he said.
The orchestra's 103 instrumentalists — chosen from more than 800 applicants, aged 17 to 27, from a dozen nations and territories across Asia — were in their first group practice. They had only a few hours to prepare for the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar's “ Enigma Variations” before a ceremony attended by corporate sponsors, government officials and celebrities.
For the following three weeks, these musicians would rehearse for nine hours a day. This Saturday, they embark on a tour across mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, playing for a total of about 20,000 audience members.
In past years, the orchestra has played at the White House, the Hollywood Bowl and Avery Fisher Hall, in New York. But for its 25th season, it is staying on home turf. Its anniversary gala at the Hong Kong Coliseum on Aug. 16 will feature about 600 musicians — 300 instrumentalists, including alumni, and 300 vocalists — performing a spirited rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
On top of mastering Hayden, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss and Shostakovich, the members of the youth orchestra will also have to learn how get along with colleagues from vastly different backgrounds, and how to navigate a tour that crisscrosses rival Asian states like Japan and China . Almost every year, the orchestra's general manager, Keith Lau, has to fix visa problems or get special permission for players trying to enter particular countries.
In May, the ensemble became the first orchestra to win the Nikkei Asia Prize in Japan for bringing the region together.
The Asian Youth Orchestra, founded in 1990 by the violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin and Mr. Pontzious, is similar to the European Union Youth Orchestra. However, that ensemble is organized by a pan-national government body, whereas its Asian counterpart is privately funded and left on its own to bridge Asia's border tensions. Mr. Pontzious said the spirit of the Asian group was closest to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is based in Seville, Spain, and whose goal is to bring together musicians divided by the politics of the Middle East.
The Asian players' education extends beyond the practice room. Touring musicians are housed with host families — an experience not always appreciated at first by young people struggling with other cultures or languages.
“It's traumatic for some orchestral members,” Mr. Pontzious said. “One Chinese player's grandfather had been killed by a Japanese soldier. Another Chinese girl turned to me when she was placed with a Japanese family and said, 'How do you think I feel?' But two days later, she was carrying the Japanese family's baby in her arms. This is a very common reaction.”
At the end of every concert, the musicians are introduced by their country or territory. And sometimes, this has rattled nerves. The 2012 tour was particularly tumultuous. The orchestra crossed China at the height of anti- Japan protests over disputed islands. In China , “tempers were igniting and heated insults were being hurled at anything and anyone Japanese,” Mr. Pontzious wrote at the time in The South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. The Japanese players were apprehensive, but still received warm applause from the Chinese audience.
Mr. Pontzious, originally from the San Francisco area, has seen many highs and lows in Asia since he moved to Taiwan in 1967. He was hired by the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983 and became one of the first foreigners to stay long term after the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976 and was a period when “bourgeois” Western instruments and sheet music were ritually destroyed.
“The conservatory was very damaged by the events of the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “The instruments were terrible. Kids had rubber bands holding together the keys on their clarinets.”
What he saw was far removed from today's China, home to gleaming new concert halls and celebrity soloists like Lang Lang, Yundi Li and Jian Wang. For Mr. Pontzious, the future of classical music is in Asia. “If you look at audiences in Europe, they are all elderly,” he said. “It's the opposite here. People are bringing babies to concerts.”
The Asian Youth Orchestra's demographics have shifted with Asia's economic development. In the 1990s, it was dominated by Japanese players. But when Japan's economy faltered and China's grew, more Chinese members came on board. There is also an evolving contingent from Southeast Asia. In one telling example of the changing climate, Naoki Ota, a French horn player from Japan returned to his country in 2010 to deliver pizzas, but he later found work with the Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra, in China, because of his connection to the Asian Youth Orchestra .
The Asian group's age cap, at 27, is a bit higher than other youth orchestras to accommodate musicians from various backgrounds. Players can repeat the program as many times as they want so long as they pass auditions each time.
Kevin Julius Castelo, who is 23 and just graduated from the University of the Philippines as a percussion major, is on his fourth tour. He was a talented high school drummer who played in a rock band but had little exposure to classical music or instruments. “It's not like other countries, with better secondary school programs,” he said. “I didn't even know how to read notes.”
Back at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts last month, Mr. Lau, the general manager, continued to prepare the players for their first performance. He checked that their sheet music was ordered, their uniforms were ironed, and threatened to cover their legs in black stage tape if they forgot to wear socks.
To symbolize the full financial support that each of the orchestra's members receive for their participation and travel, Mr. Lau handed a certificate of donation to Hoang Ho Khanh Van, an 18-year-old violinist from Vietnam. “This is worth $12,500,” Mr. Lau said, positioning Ms. Hoang where she would face the VIPs in the front row. “So when your time comes, look at the audience and smile.”
Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
在過去幾年裡，這支交響樂團曾在白宮、好萊塢露天劇場和紐約的艾弗里·菲舍大廳(Avery Fisher Hall)演出，但是到了第25個演出季，它卻停留在家鄉。8月16日，它將在香港體育館舉辦年度慶典，屆時將有600名音樂家參演，其中包括300名樂手（含往屆樂手）和300名歌手，帶來他們對貝多芬“第九交響曲”生機勃勃的演繹。
5月， 樂團成了第一支獲得日本日經亞洲獎(Nikkei Asia Prize)的交響樂團，原因是它將整個亞洲團結起來。
亞洲青年交響樂團於1900年由小提琴大師耶胡迪·梅紐因(Yehudi Menuhin)與龐信創辦，與歐盟青年交響樂團(European Union Youth Orchestra)頗為類似。不過，歐洲青年交響樂團是由一個泛國家政府機構組織，而亞洲青年交響樂團則是由私人創立，希望它的發展能在亞洲關係緊張的各國之上架起橋樑。龐信說，亞洲青年交響樂團的宗旨與東西方和平交響樂團(West-Eastern Divan Orchestra)最為貼近，這支西班牙塞維爾的樂團旨在讓中東地區因政治原因分隔開來的音樂家們歡聚一堂。
23歲的凱文·朱利烏斯·卡斯特羅(Kevin Julius Castelo)剛從菲律賓大學畢業，主修打擊樂器，這是他第四次參加巡演。上中學時，他就是一名天才鼓手，加入了一支搖滾樂隊，但幾乎沒怎麼聽過古典音樂或相關樂器。“我們這裡不像其他國家，有更好的中學課程，”他說。“我當時都不識譜。”