As ABRSM celebrates 60 years of examining in Hong Kong, Sam Olluver reports on the musical opportunities for young people in the city today. In 1951, few of Hong Kong's buildings exceeded four storeys; visitors arriving by air landed on a precarious strip in the middle of the harbour; and the city's flagship ensemble, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, had yet to attain its name and professional status. It was also the year that ABRSM began examining in the then British colonial outpost. How things have changed 60 years on. Like the city's iconic skyscrapers, the modest numbers of those first candidates have shot up dramatically to stand at about 84,000 in 2010, requiring the services of around 160 examiners (there were just three in 1965) and representing the largest bloc in ABRSM’s global activity. How can this be in a city that, many will tell you, is more interested in money than in Mozart? The reference to money might be relevant to a degree, in that music exams can count as currency in helping students secure a place at their preferred school. To the outsider, this may smack more of expediency than a love for music, but visitors to the city are regularly taken aback by one social observation: the unexpectedly large numbers of students attending classical music concerts, either with school parties, in family groups or as individuals. Such interest is nurtured by Hong Kong's major arts organisations that all run extensive community and education programmes. The roots, however, lie in ABRSM's service of providing yardsticks of achievement in instrumental and vocal studies, with tuition provided by school music departments, private music centres and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department's Music Office – a government agency that also provides Chinese instrument tuition and a host of chances to take part in large ensembles. There are also additional musical opportunities provided by organisations such as the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra (which actually comprises four orchestras of different levels) and the New Philharmonia Youth Orchestra. The highest achievers regularly secure places in the Asian Youth Orchestra, which has its administrative base in Hong Kong and caters for the cream of the region's performers, giving them touring experience and the opportunity to work at demanding repertoire with international conductors. Students wanting to read music at tertiary level can choose between courses offered by three universities, in addition to the Institute of Education and the Academy for Performing Arts. Forty years ago, Gabriel Kwok, the Academy's current Head of Keyboard, received an ABRSM scholarship to facilitate his advanced studies in the UK. More recent recipients include Warren Lee, Music Director of St Paul's Co-educational College in Hong Kong who, together with his sister, Alda, were supported in their tuition at London's Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) respectively. ‘Without ABRSM’s generous financial support, my sister and I may not have had the opportunity to study at the RNCM and RAM,’ Lee says. ‘And, for me, ABRSM’s flexibility and understanding of my needs... proves that they are not just offering monetary support, but also care deeply about the artistic and personal development of their scholars.’ Established 70 years ago, the Hong Kong Schools' Music and Speech Association provides a competitive platform for both individual and group performances. The fact that the annual number of entries for the music categories alone averages 150,000 sends its own message. It also draws attention to the army of music teachers fuelling the industry, many of whom have themselves benefited from ABRSM’s programmes in professional development. Leading that training in the early years was David Gwilt, who arrived in Hong Kong as an examiner in 1969 and returned the following year to stay. Now Emeritus Professor of Music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he continues to give support to teachers and students alike through the radio broadcasts he presents with his wife, Shirley, giving advice on good practice in interpretation of the piano exam repertoire. The husband-and-wife team were appointed ABRSM’s Regional Consultants in 1995 and have only very recently retired from the position. With such large candidate numbers, efficient daily administration of the exams is crucial. One of Shirley’s involvements has been to train a team of interpreters who liaise between examiner and candidate on request. This is increasingly important with the rise in popularity of Chinese over the English language since the handover in 1997. Examiner Stephen Ellis is just as appreciative of the service as the candidates. ‘Interpreters really facilitate the process of conducting exams,’ he says. ‘They also help put the candidate at ease so they can perform to the best of their abilities.’ It's a boon, of course, if the examiners themselves are as relaxed as possible during a tour and Stephen believes that this is where the city of seven million comes into its own as a counter-balance to the sedentary nature of the job. ‘I myself love walking and going out to enjoy very tranquil times on the outlying islands,’ he says. ‘But Hong Kong is so diverse; for others there's all the excitement of the city, the shopping and the concerts.’ He recounts some memorable diploma performances, the likes of which are not often heard outside Hong Kong. ‘I've actually recommended candidates for scholarships because they've done spectacularly well in their LRAM exam, but then found out that they're second-year medical students, with music as a little side-line. The work ethic here is amazing.’ To celebrate its important milestone, ABRSM is planning a number of events and developments during 2011. ‘At the heart of our work is a commitment to supporting teachers and candidates, and this will be the focus of our celebrations in Hong Kong this year,’ Tim Arnold, ABRSM’s International Operations Director, explains. With such an impressive score-card to date, batting ABRSM's first 60 years in Hong Kong up to a century looks well within reach.
Sam Olluver is a freelance musician and arts journalist based in Hong Kong.
This article was originally featured in the January 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.