The Asian Youth Orchestra returns to camp
The Hong Kong-based Asian Youth Orchestra is better than your average adolescent outfit, as John Yip finds out
If you think the Asian Youth Orchestra is just your run-of-the-mill collection of slightly disinterested teenagers playing flutes, violins and drums a little out of key and synch then you’re making a huge mistake. With 100 of the most talented and promising young musicians from all across Asia, the AYO is the head prefect when it comes to youth orchestras. The guys and girls have performed more than 350 concerts since its inauguration in 1990 and it celebrates its 22nd birthday this year. Cue a crescendo of concerts across the continent – including a much-anticipated gig in Hong Kong.
AYO founder and artistic director Richard Pontzious reckons it’s going to be a fantastic tour of Asia, the orchestra playing works from Berlioz, Debussy and Mahler. He says he started the group up 22 years ago to help the young talents ‘give some serious thoughts to making their life and their career in Asia or in their home countries’. “I wanted to create some sort of project that would inspire these young people to celebrate what they have learnt,” he says. And that’s what he’s done.
Averaging 900 applicants each year competing for the 100 seats in the orchestra, Pontzious says the AYO doesn’t settle for anything less than the crème-de-la-crème. “We fly to China, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam – or wherever – for auditions,” he says, adding that musicians are chosen entirely ‘based on merit’.
At 15 years old, violinist Aaron Chan is one of the youngest in the AYO this year. “I wrote a letter to ask if I could go to the audition,” says the teenager. And the rest was, quickly, history – as it has been for the other musicians in the orchestra whose careers could go sky high from here. Chan joins 99 other talents at a three-week rehearsal camp that starts at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts on July 23. In the academy they meet with respective instrumental specialists – including Lynn Chang from The Boston Conservatory and Thanos Adamopoulos from Monnaie Opera – and rehearse nine hours a day, six days a week, before touring around nine major cities in Asia including Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo. It’s intense but no different to what any professional orchestra would engage in.
“The rehearsals are fruitful but exhausting at the same time,” says double bass player Berry Chan, recalling last year’s tour. “You literally don’t want to do anything but rest during the 30-minute breaks between rehearsals. But it’s also eye-opening to learn how bassists from different places play the instrument rather differently.” The international experience, as well as masterclasses run by top musicians, are the reasons Chan signed up to the AYO again this summer.
From an orchestra that solely aims to give youths a stage to shine, the AYO has gradually evolved into an orchestra which prepares young Asian musicians for a greater professional career in music making – a stepping stone, in fact. “I just received an email from Berlin asking if we could perform there,” says Pontzious, excitedly. Having already collaborated with world-famous names like Yo-Yo Ma, the AYO has slowly established its own reputation around the globe as the go-to youth orchestra.
This year, with a record high of 30 members from China, the orchestra is taking in more talents from the Middle Kingdom who would not have been allowed to come to Hong Kong – let alone tour the world – in the past. And while some might see the orchestra’s limitation of only taking in musicians from Asia as a difficulty, Pontzious sees it as one of the ensemble’s key advantages. He believes Asian musicians are blessed with a ‘wonderful focus and discipline’ which leads to success. The fact that the orchestra is run independently without government cash, running only on generous support from donors all these years, is also something of a boost to the 68-year-old artistic director. “It’s a real testament to the fact that people in Asia want this orchestra to succeed.” Pontzious believes this offers the AYO greater autonomy and helps maintain the high standard of the orchestra which, he says, should never be taken for granted.
“We pretty much will do the same thing each year,” says Pontzious, avoiding pointing to anything new or gimmicky in this year’s tour. However he gives the impression the AYO is anything but complacent at the same time. His youngsters just have their eyes on the highest standards in music making. No small feat, really…
The AYO plays the Cultural Centre on Aug 9-11. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.