Brand Building: An Arduous and Fragile Feat
Down the ages, we have seen and heard so many instances of the collapse of long-established businesses. Well-known brands that took more than a century to build were destroyed practically overnight – a cruel fate almost always due to having succumbed to fierce and relentless competition.
Within the field of culture and the arts, to create and nurture a brand often calls for even more time and effort. The fact that the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall remains the most preferred venue among music lovers today, in spite of the proliferation of other auditoria in the territory, stands testimony to its brand equity, developed through all the trials and tribulations in the course of half a century. The ‘Hong Kong Arts Festival’ brand name is likewise achieved through the continuous and tireless efforts of forty long years. On the same note, the leading position of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in the music industry is the fruit of labour of countless individuals over the past 35 years. So in contrast, the meteoric rise of HKCO’s Music about China series – an annual showcase of the latest contemporary Chinese orchestral music – to become a brand identity within just the last five or six years is nothing short of extraordinary.
Music appreciation is experiential in nature. Avant garde composers of contemporary music often adopt adventurous and novelty-seeking concepts to produce powerful, unbridled compositions which are beyond the known experience of the average audience. Some of these new creations can also seem half-baked as a result of the composer’s technical limitations and unrealistic ambition, making the appreciation of contemporary music like these a challenge repulsed by many. Yet, every year the Music about China concert bills the ‘latest offerings’ in Chinese orchestral music. The series not only defies the stigma of contemporary music being box office flops, but even goes to the other extreme as being hugely popular and critically acclaimed, so much so that it has been a brand name closely associated with the HKCO. The key to this success is the programming acumen of the Orchestra’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Yan Huichang. Yan is very much aware of the precariousness of brand building – it takes arduous efforts to build, and perhaps only one stroke to destroy. With such knowledge in mind, he and the Orchestra are highly cautious in commissioning composers for the Music about China series. In striving to choose technically mature compositions that are both creative and inspiring, due consideration has to be given at many levels.
But then, this selection task is easier said than done. Creative works will more likely than not incorporate elements that are the ‘exception rather than the rule’, so there are no standard criteria of assessment. For those works that have been performed outside Hong Kong, there may be audio and video recordings available, or reviews and critiques which can serve as reference. (One of the examples this year is Mountain Music - Movements 3 and 4, a composition for dizi and orchestra by the young female composer Lu Yun from Taiwan). But for commissioned new works, the selection process needs to be much more stringent. In such cases, apart from considering the track record of the composer, it is crucial that adequate communication and understanding be established in advance to facilitate the composition of works that meet the professional expectations of the orchestra as well as express the individual creativity of the composer.
Among the talent selected and commissioned to compose new works for this year’s Music about China VI are Ng Cheuk-yin, who is prolifically creative and has been active in different genres on the Hong Kong music scene, crossing pop, jazz, classical, musicals, Chinese music, Western music, vocal music and instrumental music. Ng’s contribution is The Seventh Month, a sheng and orchestra piece which features the composer himself in a sheng solo. In addition, there is Jeffrey Ching, a Berlin-based Chinese Filipino who graduated from the elite Harvard, Cambridge and London Universities, and has researched both Chinese and Western musicology extensively. Although Ching is less known in Hong Kong, his credentials are no less impressive: his highly acclaimed compositions include Symphony No. 4 Souvenir des Ming, which crosses Bach’s polyphonic techniques with the elements and spirit of ancient Chinese music, and Das Waisenkind which premiered at the Theater Erfurt, and features a fusion libretto of the ancient Chinese language with five European ones. His composition for Music about China VI is Horologia sinica for soprano and traditional Chinese orchestra, a novel piece showcasing the combination of the ancient Chinese astronomical clock tower, the imperial court music of China’s Song Dynasty and the calligraphy of the Song Emperor Huizong.
In spite of a good track record and adequate communication, there is no guarantee that a commissioned piece would definitely materialise for the event. A case in point on this occasion is Singapore’s Mark Chan, who is unable to fulfil the commission due to illness. Chan’s withdrawal posed a problem, as there was little time to commission a replacement, and rushing a composition could compromise its quality. After an exhaustive search, Yan located a suitable candidate who is on the faculty of China Conservatory, Quan Jihao. Quan’s ensemble piece, A Dialogue on Styles, is a cross-cultural work between the traditional music of the Chinese Peking Opera and the Korean pansori. Judging from the music scores and the demo recording, Yan has full confidence that this new composition will be a worthwhile treat for the Hong Kong audience. Quan’s outstanding repertoire began in the mid-1980s with his memorable piano suite A Combination of Long and Short (which has subsequently been recognized as a ‘20th Century Chinese Music Classic’, followed by seven symphonies and four works for Chinese orchestra, although his works have rarely been performed in Hong Kong. Last but not least is Chew Hee-chiat’s Orchestral Suite II, which was second runner-up in the International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Compositions. Having passed the twin tests of time and previous performance, it is considered by Yan as a great piece well worth a revisit by the audience.
Nevertheless, a good composition still requires good performers in order to bring all its “goodness” to life. The mantle falls therefore on the conductor Yan Huichang and his orchestra to put in the extra rehearsal hours to ensure the best quality performance. Without the dedication and professionalism of this complement of musicians, it would be difficult to sustain the momentum of this brand known as “Music about China”.