Vantage Music | March 2021 | Hong Kong
Anyone even slightly acquainted with the Hong Kong classical music scene will have undoubtedly heard of Leung Kin Fung, first associate concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. In this interview, Leung talked about his childhood, his decision to become an orchestral musician, and his venture into musical education, and shared with us his secrets for success.
A Teacher at Home
Leung has had a close relationship with the violin since he was young. By the age of five, Leung’s father, who was also a violinist himself, had already started to train him on the instrument. To Leung, it was both a blessing and a curse.
“The good thing with having your father as your teacher is that you don’t have much chance to make mistakes,” Leung explained. “My father was always by my side when I was practicing, and every time I made a mistake he would immediately point that out and make me correct it. It was like having a lesson every day in your daily life.” Leung’s father was an advocate of strict parenting, and he did not go easy on Leung. “If I played a single note out of tune, he would hit me with a bamboo stick.” This harsh teaching forced Leung to develop a solid violin technique at a very young age, and having a teacher under the same rooftop allowed him to avoid many common beginner pitfalls.
It was not all sunshine and rainbows. “To many students, having a lesson was not a pleasant experience. Teachers tended to point out a lot of the students’ mistakes, and it was not always easy to correct them on the spot.” While normal students only had to go through this ordeal once a week, Leung had to experience this on a daily basis. “It was not pleasant at all.”
Fortunately, Leung’s hard work paid off. Back in the seventies, when Leung was still a primary school student in Guangdong, they used to get visitors from communist states around the world. Every time the guests came, the school would organize concerts to showcase the students’ talents, and Leung was often assigned to play violin solo, performing “red songs” like “Joyous News from Beijing Reaches the Borderlands” (北京喜訊傳邊寨).
Leung explained the choice of repertoire. “During our private lessons, we were allowed to play western classical music, but for public performances we had to choose something more accessible.” Apart from concerts for foreign visitors, some of Leung’s performances also took place in rural villages, where the audiences were not acquainted with western instrumental music. “If I had played a violin concerto by Mozart, they would not understand a thing. However, the descriptive nature of the patriotic songs meant that the audience only had to get the meaning of the title to navigate through the piece.”
Entering the Academy
By the time Leung started his secondary education, the whole family had already moved to Hong Kong. The education curriculums were widely different in Guangdong and Hong Kong, and Leung had a hard time catching up. “I only learnt the English alphabet when I was seven, whilst my classmates in Hong Kong had already been speaking English since kindergarten.” Sensing such a great divide, Leung decided not to compete with them head-on. “Rather than pursuing academic excellence, I decided to devote myself to music.”
At that time, the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA) was newly founded, and Leung set his eyes on the institution. “The requirement to enter APA was only a pass in the core subjects, so I only focused on those and ignored the rest in my HKCEE.” Leung’s plan succeeded, and he became one of the first batch of violinists to enter HKAPA.
Scholarship to America
Life as an HKAPA student was very eventful. “Being a newly founded institution, the Academy needed to actively promote themselves to the society.” To increase the society’s awareness of the school, HKAPA students were encouraged to perform in all kinds of events. “Within my first year, I had already been to all the clubhouses and banking events, playing ‘furniture music’ to the social gatherings.” The students were often asked to perform whatever piece they had to hand, and as a result Leung spent less time studying music in earnest. “My daily practice became a race to finish a new piece, so that I could report to the Academy and get a new performance opportunity.”
Leung’s teacher thought that he was too young for this kind of life, and he encouraged Leung to broaden his horizons. “You have not seen everything yet. There is a whole new world of music that you haven’t discovered,” his teacher said to him. Leung took this advice to heart, and he quit HKAPA two years later, going to the Eastman School of Music on a full scholarship.
Eastman was an eye-opener for Leung. “In Hong Kong, I considered myself one of the best in my class. In America, I discovered that I was the worst.” Leung still remembered first meeting Zvi Zeitlin, his teacher at Eastman. “He was not satisfied with any of my single notes!” A strong proponent of the Russian-Jewish school of teaching, Zeitlin believed in instilling discipline in his students. “I was not allowed to bring a score to the lesson, but I couldn’t make any mistakes. I could not even get a note wrong.”
Leung later went to the Manhattan School of Music, completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees under Albert Markov and Emanuel Vardi. The three teachers had widely different styles, and Leung had a hard time adjusting. “Every teacher had their own style, and their teachings would often contradict each other. Frequently, I would learn a technique from one teacher, only to have another dismiss it as outright wrong.” Looking back, Leung was grateful he had such an experience. “This taught me that you can have multiple perspectives when viewing the same piece. Oftentimes, there is no single correct answer, no matter in music or life.”
In 1990, Leung went to the Juilliard School to continue his studies under Dorothy DeLay. It was a refreshing change of style for the student violinist. “DeLay only mentored the most advanced of students, and thus she wasted no time on technical matters, instead focusing more on extra-curricular items like competitions or career planning. If I had asked her how to play a certain passage, she would jokingly respond, ‘Why don’t you just listen to Perlman?’”
During his American studies, Leung realized that being a soloist was not purely about musical ability. “To be successful as a musician, not only do you need to have musicianship; you also need to have personality, vision, knowledge, and of course an opportunity to shine.”
At Juilliard, Leung’s classmates were all wannabe soloists, waiting for the chance to be catapulted to fame. This mentality did not sit well with Leung. “I did not want to waste my time waiting for the opportune moment; I wanted to do my best in the music scene right now.” And so, in his third year in America, Leung decided to change tracks and become an orchestral musician. Of course, being a high achiever, Leung was not satisfied with just any ordinary orchestral position. “I wanted to become a violinist in the first or second row of a first-rate orchestra.”
Leung shared his newfound goal with his classmates, but it was not well received. “My classmates laughed at me and said that I was too unambitious.” In their mind, only those who were not qualified enough to be a soloist would want to become an orchestral musician, and they did not understand Leung’s commitment. Nearly 30 years later, time proved Leung right. “Some of my classmates were still waiting for the chance to be a soloist, while I had already made a name for myself as a top-notch orchestral musician, attracting many soloist opportunities in the process.”
Leaping to the Top
Leung’s unorthodox career path stemmed from his dream-big predisposition. “I am not a down-to-earth person. I am the kind of person who prefers to leap to the top in one step.”
Leung recounted how he got accepted as violin faculty at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music when he was still studying for his master’s degree. “Normally, a person who has just finished a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t even dream of applying for such a position, especially in a place where academic qualification is so important.” The Conservatory’s director was initially also skeptical. “He told me that all other applicants had got at least two doctorates, and asked me why he should consider my application.”
Leung was prepared for this question. “The good thing with Americans is that they are more accepting of things that challenge the status quo. As long as you can answer their question, they will be willing to take up your proposal.” And, so, Leung presented his case. “I replied that the Conservatory was looking for a violin teacher. If you look at my performance experience and my competition results, then I am better qualified. The doctors may be more proficient in writing papers, but I am much more experienced in terms of teaching and demonstration.” The director was satisfied with Leung’s answers, and he began teaching at the Conservatory.
Teaching in Brooklyn improved Leung’s quality of life. “Even though I got a full scholarship for my master’s degree, I still needed to pay for food and dating.” While Leung’s friends were all teaching in Chinatown, Koreatown, or Little Tokyo at $7 per hour, Leung was already teaching at $22 per hour in the Conservatory. “It was a big difference. It even allowed me to rent my own studio in a decent building.”
This successful placement also allowed Leung to reaffirm his guiding principles. “You have to have the ambition to do what you thought will never succeed. Eventually, you will have to convince people to believe in you, but this won’t happen if you have not taken the first step.”
Recording in Taiwan
Leung left America for Taiwan after he finished his studies at Juilliard, starting his orchestral career as the associate concertmaster for the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan. It was already a prestigious position, but Leung was hungry for more. “It was the heydays of the CD industry, and many musicians viewed recording a CD as the pinnacle of their career. Some musicians would even plan their career around that.” Those musicians would first come out and perform on stage for a few years, amassing popularity until they were approached for recording.
This method was too slow for Leung’s taste. “I wanted to make a CD immediately, so I thought about what I wanted to record.” Leung noticed the lack of chamber music in the Taiwan CD scene, so he formed the Taipei Fine Arts Trio in 1994 with pianist Wei Yu-Mei and cellist Monica Su (Monica later went on to become Leung’s wife). The trio eventually released a CD in 1996, making Leung one of the first relatively “unfamous” local musicians to have recorded a CD in Taiwan.
Leung was instrumental in the making of this CD, both as a player and more importantly as the manager of the trio. “One characteristic I think I have is that I am not shy at all. I am willing to ask for sponsors.” DeLay, his teacher at Juilliard, had always encouraged them not to shy away from the business side of music-making. “You should utilize your positional advantage as an artist to talk to businessmen yourself. If they reject you, they should feel ashamed. If you talk to someone who is 20 to 30 years older than you, it is all the better, because in their eyes you are an aspiring young man, and who won’t feel ashamed to have turned down an aspiring young man?”
As the saying goes, well begun is half done. After Leung recorded his first CD, people looked at him with newfound respect. “At that time, musicians used to send over resumes or bios by way of introduction, but I simply sent over a CD.” CDs used to be known as proofs of quality, so Leung found himself snowballing into greater success—he received more commissions for CDs, which in turn boosted his fame. To date, Leung has recorded 13 CDs as a soloist or chamber musician, making him one of the most prolific classical musicians in Hong Kong in terms of discography.
Leung summarizes his path to success. “Opportunities only appear when you are willing to cross not only the first step but also the next 10 steps. Reach the destination first, then come back and fill in the interim.”
In 2000, Leung became the first associate concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and he returned to Hong Kong for good. It was a promising career development, but, after all those years of orchestral playing, Leung was starting to get restless.
Leung decided to explore music outside of the orchestra, so in 2004 he founded Hong Kong Pure Strings, an innovative string ensemble that paired the string quartet with a harp and a bass. The ensemble consisted of top musicians from all around the world, and aimed at fusing classical and contemporary music and bringing extraordinary music elements to audiences. “I wanted to create something original, something the world had never seen before.” True to Leung’s words, the ensemble amassed a diverse repertoire throughout the years, from Napoli folk songs to Cantopop classics like “Moon Presents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). “We even arranged the Yellow River Piano Concerto for the sextet. This was something people had not thought of before.”
From Player to Conductor
In 2014, after having played in an orchestra for more than 20 years, Leung tried his hand at music education. “The headmistress of the Diocesan Girls’ School (DGS) invited me to become the ‘Performing Arts Director’ of the school.” The student orchestra’s quality had been languishing after a series of personnel changes, and the headmistress hoped for a breakthrough.
Initially, Leung was hesitant. “I told the headmistress that I had no teaching experience, and no patience either—I would easily get unhappy if I had to repeat my words twice.” Neither quality was exactly what one would expect for an educator, but the headmistress dismissed his concern. “My girls can take that. Don’t even allow yourself to get challenged by them.”
Leung remembers first hearing the DGS Orchestra in their annual concert. The music was not up to Leung’s standard, and his wife, sitting beside him, even joked that he still had time to reject the job. But Leung saw hope in the orchestra. “The students were all smart people and good players; it was just that, once you put them together, there was no ensembleship.” And, so, Leung took on the mantle of director and conductor, determined to brush up the orchestra.
Leung had had some conducting training in his college years, but the bulk of his experience came from the receiving end of the baton. Despite this, Leung was not worried. “When you have done something for a long time, you will know it from inside out.” As a professional orchestral musician, Leung had played with many top conductors, and he felt that he knew enough to conduct an effective orchestral rehearsal. “I knew full well how an orchestra should rehearse, how an orchestra could achieve its own sound, and how to build up an orchestra’s own personality.”
To Leung, intonation, articulation, and rhythm are the three qualities that distinguish a good orchestra from a bad one. “No matter classical or pop, intonation is an important part of the music. It is especially true for the wind players in an orchestra because, even if a single player is out of tune, it stands out like a sore thumb, and the audience can easily hear it.” Articulation and rhythm, the remaining items of the equation, are about the clarity of music in terms of sound and duration. “Rhythm is not only about a steady pulse, or about how well the players are in sync with each other. It is about precision, about adherence to the stated note value. It is the difference between a triplet and a dotted eighth note.”
By focusing on these three qualities, Leung completely transformed the orchestra. “I always told the girls that I have a metronome and a tuner in my body, so I can catch everything that is out of time or out of tune.” Leung had sharp eyes and ears, and after every tutti passage he would point out who played what wrong, whether it be the bowing, the part of the bow, or the fingering, and he would insist on rehearsing the same passage until he got the sound he wanted. “It was not pleasant for the girls.”
Leung rated the orchestra after a year. “If there was a 10-point rating for orchestras, a good conductor would be able to raise a five-point orchestra to an eight. In my case, I would say that I pushed the DGS Orchestra to a nine.”
Leung shared with us the secrets of this huge improvement. “Most of the players had already had a solid technique, so what I did was just to entice them to not be afraid to play.” Leung observed that, in most amateur orchestras, only the front few rows of the string section were actually playing. By employing a myriad rehearsing techniques that he learnt while a player, Leung was able to stimulate the outer rows to also play in earnest, dramatically improving the sound and quality of the orchestra.
Going to the DGS Orchestra’s performances was sometimes disconcerting. “If you go to any of their performances with your eyes closed, you will not believe they were played by form ones and form twos. The orchestra sounded so rich and powerful.” The DGS Orchestra was once invited to Wuhan in 2016 for a cultural exchange with the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory students originally thought little of the secondary students, but they were floored by the orchestra’s performance. “What they saw was a student orchestra, but what they heard was a professional sound.”
Despite their superior standard, however, Leung felt that it was hard to bring the orchestra to the next level. “As the conductor of a student orchestra, my most important job was to uplift the orchestra’s quality to be closer to that of a professional orchestra. After that, there was not much you can do.
“In a professional orchestra, everyone knows how to play already, so the most important thing as a conductor was to achieve your own sound and your own personality through the orchestra. However, it was hard to achieve that with a school orchestra, because students come and go every year, and every year I would have to start at the basics again. This lack of continuity meant that I could only strive to maintain the orchestra’s standard, at most achieving more variety on the choice of repertoire.”
The Polytechnic Conductor
In 2016, Leung was invited to become the conductor of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Orchestra (PolyU Orchestra). Unlike the DGS Orchestra, the university’s orchestra was more of a communal project—comprised of current students, alumni, and faculty members, the orchestra was set up to enrich the cultural ambience of the university campus. After Leung joined, the orchestra gained an additional function. “Most of the members had not studied music before, so this was a rare opportunity for them to receive professional training, to experience the satisfaction of making good music.”
As the director and conductor, Leung worked hard to enrich the player’s experiences, arranging many performances and exchange trips throughout the years. In 2017, Leung even managed to line up the PolyU Orchestra with Yin Chengzong, co-composer of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, for a performance of his piece. “My role in PolyU was not only as a mere conductor; I also wanted to enrich the musical life of the players. This collaboration with Yin was particularly exciting, because, outside of PolyU, the players would almost never get the chance to play with another peak professional like Yin again.”
It was a large motivation for the orchestral members. “People liked to feel recognized. If your current ability were only 5, but you were put into a 10 position, you would feel recognized and praised, and you would work hard to upgrade yourself.” The players felt the same way, and within six rehearsals Leung was already considering the orchestra fit for performance with Yin. “It was an exceptional experience.”
Music for the Pandemic
Since the pandemic outbreak in late 2019, both orchestras have suspended most performances and rehearsals. It has been a huge setback for the musicians, but Leung is optimistic. “We have to think about what we can do in these times, not what we can’t do.”
From his experiences with the DGS Orchestra, Leung extrapolated that a lot of student musicians have a strong passion for orchestral playing. After a year of hiatus, however, those students now don’t have a way to vent out their musical boredom. “So, I set up the Hong Kong Youth Orchestra, a joint-school orchestra that combined the top secondary school musicians from all over Hong Kong.” Leung was surprised by the ferocity of the response. “Everyone was so passionate about it, and the resultant orchestra sounded so good. There was no intonation problem or unclear articulation.”
For the PolyU Orchestra, Leung instigated something equally memorable. “Every musician had a few favorite pieces that they had learnt as a student and still remembered now. I asked them to pick one of those pieces and relearn it.” Collaborating with the university’s Cultural Promotion Committee, Leung would then record their performance professionally and publish them on the Committee’s webpage. “I wanted to reignite the love of music for those not in the music industry now.”
Leung has plans for himself too. “I will be recording for the Committee the complete set of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Dr. Cheng Wai.” Leung recorded the same pieces with Cheng 20 years ago, when Leung was the artist-in-residence of RTHK Radio 4, and he is eager to explore Beethoven with Cheng again. “So many things have changed since then. I grew more mature, and I played much quicker now.”
The interpretation is not the only thing that has improved. “The Committee had asked a movie production company to film our performance, and I decided to make the video like an MTV, complete with stage directions, atmospheric lighting, and shooting from multiple angles. Beethoven’s sonatas were all very individual. Some of them were percussive, some were lyrical, and some were even schizophrenic. I described all the sonatas’ moods to the production company, and asked them to set the stage accordingly.”
Leung believes that no road to success looks alike. “A lot of people try to replicate their role models’ path to success, but we have to remember that everyone’s opportunities are different, and there are a lot of external factors at play.” Of course, successful people have some traits in common, and Leung surmised that it is the power of originality. “If you make a new thing, something the world didn’t have but wanted to have, then you will succeed.”
Leung elaborated on his theory. “Success hinges on two qualities: sensitivity and flexibility. Sensitivity is the ability to sense what is happening around you. It is the ability to know what the current world has and doesn’t have, and to know what the world needs now. But having sensitivity alone is not enough; you need to be flexible enough to act on the knowledge. Today’s world is changing so fast now, you have to adapt yourself to any situation.”
As an example of sensitivity in action, the ongoing pandemic makes Leung worry about the future of the orchestra. “Running an orchestra is a costly business, but playing recordings are not.” Leung recalled seeing a 4D performance of Teresa Teng in Japan. “The performance compiled several historical performances of Teresa and turned them into 4D. It was like looking at a real person, with lifelike skin texture and movement. By sight alone, I wouldn’t have thought that it was fake. I couldn’t even see where the projector was.” Leung worries that the future of the orchestra may also lie in recordings. “Sooner or later, you may see Bernstein and the whole New York Philharmonic in front of you, all recorded. Maybe even Heifetz.”
Leung is the father of three sons, and he defines parental success in a different way. “In my eyes, any parenting is considered successful if your children grow up happy and free from any psychological shadows. Also, I consider parenting successful if the children will share with you everything that they have encountered, be it getting in love, breaking up, or other, more sinister stuff.”
Leung encourages his sons to talk freely, and nothing is off limits in the family. “Nowadays, many teenagers keep their activities and worries to themselves, never discussing with their parents. However, my sons will talk freely in front of me, swearing and talking about everything. I wanted to teach them how to think, to distinguish right from wrong, so, if I have anything I wanted them to know about, I would tell them to do their own research, instead of speaking to them directly about the matter. Just google it.”
Unlike his father, Leung adopts a laissez-faire approach to parenting, believing that it instills individuality and builds character. “At a child’s certain age, you have to learn how to completely let go. Let them explore. If they need you, they will find you.” Leung recounted one such interaction. “My eldest son once sent me a violin score and asked me to give him the bowings. I asked him what it is for, and he told me that he is using it to woo the concertmistress of the university’s orchestra.”
Leung did not mind this frivolous use of his talents. “His violin playing had now become a social activity, but I’m happy with that. In this society, you have to socialize in any way possible, and using an instrument to socialize is such a posh way of doing so.”
Leung ended with a bit of financial advice. “I always tell my sons, don’t think about how you can save enough money. Your savings will never be enough to outpace the growth of new money. The older generation always said that you have to work hard to succeed, but, in this generation, you have to be sharp in the mind also. You have to be sensitive to the world, and invest in what you think will be the next big hit.”
Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Chester Leung