Direction change hits right note
After completing a degree in natural science at Cambridge University, Hong Kong-born Choi Ho-man took the advice of his director of studies: follow your heart, go to the United States and study to become a conductor.
Choi did just that, entering the Indiana University School of Music before going on to work with orchestras around the world and collaborating with internationally acclaimed artists. Wanting to create more opportunities in classical music for people under 25, he founded the Pro Arte Orchestra of Hong Kong in 2007 and, as music director, somehow finds time to conduct, organise, teach, raise funds and record.
What convinced you to focus on music?
At Cambridge, I had a hard time deciding. There was a chance to join the PhD programme in neuroscience, but I was also surrounded by good musicians and took every opportunity to conduct choirs and ensembles.
I made a deliberate decision, though, after performing [Joseph] Haydn's The Creation with a choir at King's College Chapel. It had all the elements of excellent musicianship.
The audience connected with the performers and the composer, and I had the realisation that I was born to do music and should not hide from it.
When had that interest begun?
What first caught my attention was the next-door neighbour playing the piano. I was about three years old and have a very clear memory of looking at all the keys and thinking there must be infinite combinations. My mother then sat with me at a toy piano picking out the themes of TV soap operas, commercials and other songs, which soon led to formal piano lessons. Later on, I remember going to a Hong Kong Philharmonic outreach concert for schools and that really motivated me to become a conductor.
What was the major attraction?
It was something immediate. I was fascinated by the idea of working with all those instruments and a group of up to 90 people who might have their own ideas and preferences about the music. I was interested in the human factor and the way everything came together.
At what point did you first take up the baton?
Our headmaster at Li Po Chun United World College was retiring and the choir had to sing a song. Basically, I just stepped up. I didn’t analyse it technically, but when something didn’t sound right, I asked myself how to fix it and, after that, learned a lot from just making bold attempts.
How did you start to build your career?
The interesting thing about being a conductor is that there is no single path to take. I remember sending applications to more than 50 orchestras for a job as an assistant conductor, thinking that was a necessary first step. But a friend encouraged me to apply for a more senior music director's position with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, which had been held by a professor at Indiana University. Though I was just a fresh graduate there, I tried out and got the job.
Where do your priorities now lie?
The music business, nowadays, has conductors jetting around the world, maybe just visiting for one week and with very little time for rehearsals.
I have been influenced by a mentor at Indiana who said that if you want to build rapport with musicians, you have to be there with them, not just jumping in for *guest* appearances. That's especially true if, as with Pro Arte, you are starting an orchestra from scratch and need to mould the culture by setting standards to give pre-professional musicians the experience they need.
What are the essentials for a good performance?
There is the “traffic cop” element, meaning I have to give very clear signals, so the musicians know where they are in the bar and have the downbeats and cues telling them when to come in or stop. This, though, is only 1 per cent of conducting. For me, the key is to look into the context of the piece and feel what the music is trying to convey.
For example, a diminuendo could go from loud to soft as if losing energy or, instead, give the feeling of someone being oppressed and forced to surrender. The atmosphere and way of playing can be totally different. I have to make those decisions beforehand and inspire the orchestra to convey the right mood.
What does it take to keep improving?
Conducting is like a language understood by musicians everywhere. There are the standard gestures to get right, but we also have flexibility in terms of creating the dynamics and the balance. You really have to refine the craft every day. I study the score, form the sound in my mind, and try to understand the composer by reading biographical material and about the history of the piece.
I also do a lot of practice before seeing an orchestra, including in front of the mirror and in rehearsals to see which gestures work best with the musicians.