Music lover's maverick moves
"I'm not your typical career guy, I'm kind of a maverick," says So. "But this inconsistency, this contradiction in my interests was always part of me. Looking back, it seems that things just happened; there was really no conscious plan."
That willingness to follow where life led was already evident in So's decision to study economics and philosophy at the University of Hong Kong in the late 1960s.
The subject looked challenging and fresh and seemed "a fun idea", while also providing the chance to continue practising and performing as a classical pianist in both solo and chamber concerts.
So had begun to play as a five-year-old and was soon taking fortnightly tram trips for lessons from a distinguished teacher on The Peak. Later, training at a conservatory did cross his mind, there was an opportunity to attend England's Royal School of Music, but So has no regrets about not taking that path. "Sometimes, I wonder how my life would have evolved if I'd gone there, but I don't pine for it," he says. "I was able to do interesting things musically and, perhaps unconsciously, was telling myself I could always go back to music [at any time]."
That has proved to be the case. So's first full-time job as a Nestle marketing executive saw him pounding the streets selling milk products, infant formula, chocolate and drinks to all kinds of outlets around Hong Kong. He found it excellent training in the practicalities of sales and marketing, but after a year, he could not resist an offer to work as programme officer on classical music shows for RTHK's English channel.
Carrying two-feet-high piles of black vinyl discs between the library and the studio did improve his physique but, all things considered, didn't present too much of a creative challenge. In search of that, he joined advertising firm Ling-McCann-Erickson in 1972 and was soon putting together campaigns for big-name clients selling consumer products, soft drinks and pharmaceuticals.
"Those years gave me a lot of insights into the most important ingredients of marketing and how to get close to different products."
However, the love of music reasserted itself. So accepted the post of general manager for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's first two professional seasons in the mid-1970s and then went on to a five-year stint as business manager for the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
This experience, uniting the business and music strands of his career, was to transform local popular culture over the next two decades. In senior roles with Capital Artists and Metrostar, and as a producer for Golden Harvest, So played a major part in the development of Canto-pop as a distinct musical genre and managed the careers of home-grown superstars like Anita Mui, Sandy Lam, Kenny B and Tony Leung.
"When I went into the pop world, we couldn't foresee these huge results," he said. "I like to think the term Canto-pop owed its origins to Capital Artists. We really revolutionised many things which you still see today, especially in the way we packaged and marketed artists, showcasing them through concerts at the Coliseum, dramatically increasing the audience."
For So, categorising music as pop or classical is artificial and unnecessary. He simply makes a distinction between good and bad performers, noting the "product" obviously differs, but that in terms of sales and marketing, there are many similarities. The basic rules and principles for attracting and holding an audience are the same.
"If not, there might have been some resistance to my later career switches," he said. "But because I also had this training in business marketing, people didn't ask how I could integrate myself on the pop and classical sides."
Returning from a four-year spell in Canada in 2000, he took on a wide range of board, committee and arts advisory roles, culminating in his current appointment overseeing the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. It entails close involvement in everything from fundraising and liaison with sponsors to management issues and artistic development.
"Everything is interrelated in terms of what we offer to the public," he said. "We need to put on a balanced `diet' which takes account of [the preferences of] concert-goers, the cultural history of the city, the professional life and artistic output of the orchestra." With the West Kowloon Cultural District in the works, he noted the importance of going from strength to strength artistically to be widely regarded as a genuine world-class orchestra. In the past few years, there had been a "quantum leap" in terms of performance.
The next steps, though, had to include increasing the number of players from 89 to 100-plus in order to perform the bigger works by Mahler and Strauss, and building the audience to fill larger concert halls on a regular basis. "This is one of the main targets," So said. "But funding is always a big issue."
- Completed a master's in Buddhist studies in 2004, which involved learning the Pali language and was "very tough, but enjoyable"
- Believes everyone should know a little bit about Buddhism, not as a religion, but as a good eye-opener
- Teaches classes in arts management at CUHK as a way of imparting his experience
15 years or above
Seven years or above
Five years or above
One to two years