Hong Kong A Cappella: Up-and-coming
by Edison Hung
April 30, 2011, Patrick Chiu received applause from enthusiastic audience in the packed Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, announcing the a cappella concert “Time Machine” had come to an end. This was not only the end of a new production from Hong Kong Melody Makers (HKMM), but also marked the curtain of the month-long Hong Kong International A Cappella Festival is finally drawn down.
Patrick Chiu is the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Melody Makers. He is also a choral artist based in Hong Kong who had played an important role in the festival. He received his Master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Patrick has composed a number of choral works in various styles and arranged songs for a cappella performance under the pen name “herrchiu”. He is one of the very few local musicians who enthusiastically contributes so much on developing a cappella music in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong International A Cappella Festival
I had a chat with Patrick about the Fest after the concert. I wasn’t aware that before The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, the Hong Kong Government had already organized A Cappella Series, inviting local and international groups to perform, such as Idea of North (Australia), Chanticleer (USA). However, the series have only lasted 3 seasons and stopped since 2009. Meanwhile, HKMM was founded by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups in 2005. At the beginning, it was not an a cappella group, yet over years of development, it had evolved into one of the leading team in town. And it is not until 2010, the Federation decided to organize its first A Cappella Festival which happened to take the “relay” from the government A Cappella Series.
About this year’s festivities, the programming although similar to the previous years, which included an opening extravaganza, a concert presented by a world-renowned international a cappella group, a free outdoor concert, a HKMM concert, workshops and master classes, Patrick indicated that this year, they focused more on education. “We pinpointed secondary school students this year by inviting groups to perform at schools, organizing ‘the-making-of’ a cappella workshop and guided tours for students. We also invited all school to attend the opening extravaganza concert.”
Patrick admitted that this year’s festival was “Well organized, went smoothly.” Thanks to the past year’s experience, he thought A Cappella Festival 2011 was better planned. “We draw lesson from the past and improve ourselves. The biggest lesson we had learnt is that we ought to understand the culture of different groups from different countries. That means we have to be more flexible when dealing these groups. For instance, we had invited Japanese teams in the past events, and we had difficulty in communicating with them as not much of them could speak English. Then we realized English is still rather uncommon in Japan. Therefore, this year, we seek translator and interpreters’ help.
After attending two A Cappella Festival and was even honored to have been invited to sing in one of the concerts, I genuinely feel that the Festival have certainly been playing a positive role in the development of a cappella in Hong Kong. The most influential part of the event is the performance by world class groups, which had given us a valuable chance to learn from the best team. Take this year as an example, Swingle Singers is the highlight of the festival, they brought down the house in the April 1st concert with excellent vocal / mic-control technique, smart program flow, strong stage presence and stage spacing. I believe that night had inspired many local a cappella singers to strive for better. And when it comes to the Alfresco concert, it’s a good platform to share the joy of singing and build friendship, acknowledgement between local a cappella groups.
Never an easy road for development
Despite the success of the festival, however, it is impossible to promote a music genre by one single event. In Hong Kong, although there are about a dozen of active a cappella groups, and they manage to find quite a number of performance opportunities, most of the performance is in private events, weddings or shopping malls, which are of rather small scale. Unlike the foreign groups who have their own concert and plenty of performance opportunities overseas (in April alone, Swingle Singers had performed in 9 different locations in four countries!) Among the local groups, Metro is the only professional group with signed label, the rest are either amateur or casual participants, giving hence sub-standard performances, which become the biggest obstacle to develop a cappella in Hong Kong.
To tackle with this problem, one way is to have professional groups delivering high standard performances with stable performance platform. Only professional performance can attract people’s attention and build audience base. However, it is always easier said than done. Under current situation, professionalize local amateur group with their own agent, sound engineer and artistic director would be very difficult to achieve.
It is the culture in Hong Kong make it difficult to happen. “For example” explained Patrick, “In Sweden, lots of people have choral experience, and have a deep-rooted singing culture. Growing up under this environment encourage locals to join the singing business, developing excellent a cappella teams such as Real Group”
In contrast, the surroundings for art and culture are relatively weak in Hong Kong; art form other than pop music and movie can hardly support themselves, let alone making money. Even the artistically acclaimed Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra with solid audience base, also largely depends on government subsidies and still complaining for insufficient funding. Without any financial incentive, talented singers or a cappella groups are not inclined to take on this risky carrier. No wonder Patrick said he is probably the only person in Hong Kong who devotes this amount of time and energy in a cappella.
On the right track
Even though there is no easy way to let a cappella bloom in Hong Kong, it is not just as unattainable as a dream. The key is whether one would like to give it a try or not.
From my own performance experience in some school functions, I was so amazed to find that the teenager enjoyed a cappella so much and gave us a warm welcome. In the opening extravaganza of this year’s festival, I also saw the thrill from the student audience. Because of this, I am convinced that education is no doubt the right track for developing a cappella in Hong Kong. Through promoting a cappella to the students, we can nurture new audience, enlarge the current ‘audience pool’ to support a cappella performances. At the same time, we could encourage the youngster to go to the stage and be an a cappella performer themselves and let a cappella take root and flourish in Hong Kong.
Apart from audience-nurturing, we need to improve the standard of performance too – only good performances can attract the ears of the audience. Patrick thinks the standard of a group depends if there are “chemistry” between individual members, and if there is anyone who is able to raise critical comment on the team, from singing technique to styling, from performance to practice. Furthermore, there should be musical institutions to provide professional training for all level, for beginner as well as advanced a cappella singers to keep on learning and improving themselves.
In fact, after years of endeavor and attempt, a cappella in Hong Kong has been set on the right track of development, and is taking steps forward. This can be reflected from the difference of the a cappella scene between the past and now. ‘In the past, there were not so many teams in Hong Kong, and the “circle” is so small that the insiders would know who was the founder of a particular team, or the background of the team members. But now, there is no way to know where is the new teams come from or who is the founder. I think this is a good sign. It shows that the “circle” is getting bigger and bigger, more people get to know about a cappella music and enjoy it. And it proves that what we had done is correct.” Patrick said with confidence. After all, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Translated by NG Yen Yen and Edison Hung