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How the HK Philharmonic rose to international success

As the Hong Kong Philharmonic (HK Phil) begins its 2023-2024 season, the FCC had the pleasure of sitting down with Benedikt Fohr, HK Phil’s Chief Executive, to discuss the orchestra’s recent success. From managing practice during the pandemic’s social distancing requirements to winning the 2019 Orchestra of the Year award from UK magazine Gramophone, the HK Phil has overcome many challenges on its journey to becoming one of the top orchestras in Asia.

Moderating the discussion was FCC Correspondent Board Member Karen Koh.

Fohr began with a quick presentation on HK Phil’s history. Starting in 1957, the HK Phil was renamed from its original title, the Sino-British Orchestra. The HK Phil became fully professional in 1974 and since then has toured across the world. Concert halls in Bangkok, Osaka, Seoul, Singapore, and various cities across Australia and Europe have all welcomed HK Phil’s musicians.

In 2012, the HK Phil welcomed Jaap van Zweden as their 8th Music Director, and this current season will be his last. It’s also HK Phil’s 50th season, a milestone in their performing history.

The pandemic had a major impact on the orchestra’s ability to rehearse and perform, yet with the government’s support, they were able to maintain salaries for all of their 96 musicians and support staff.

“Even during the pandemic, the government was very supportive to Hong Kong Phil,” Fohr said.

Karen Koh and Benedikt Fohr. Photo: FCC

In his presentation, Fohr noted that over 60% of HK Phil’s funding comes from government subsidies, while the remaining amount comes from performance revenue and sponsorships.  

HK Phil is widely regarded as one of the top orchestras in Asia, drawing musicians from around the world, and musician turnover is very low. Fohr talked about the recruitment process for musicians, which has evolved after the pandemic.

Fohr also discussed a musical dilemma in Hong Kong. While many local parents put their children in piano, violin, or other types of music classes, at the same time they discourage them from pursuing a professional career in music.

“Parent’s usually don’t want their kids to be professional musicians because they know how hard it is,” he said.

On the plus side, audiences in Hong Kong tend to be younger than those in Europe, which Fohr says is a good thing for the longevity of HK Phil and Hong Kong youth’s interest in classical music.

“The good thing here [Hong Kong], compared to Europe, is that there is a lot of motivation from the parents to bring their kids into music for whatever reason,” Fohr said, which then leads to consistent ticket sales for performances whereas in other countries, only older generations might be in attendance.

“That’s very hopeful,” Fohr added.

Fohr also had some advice for parents who are thinking about introducing their children to music: stick with mastering one instrument, even when it gets difficult.

“As a part of education, I think the most important thing is that we teach our kids to do something and stick with it, and not to change from one subject to another when it’s getting difficult,” he said.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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