Beyond Satisfaction – An Interview with Professor Gabriel Kwok

Vantage Music & Julie Kuok | January 2022 | Hong Kong

Anyone who has stayed on the HKAPA’s campus long enough will have come across an unassuming gentleman who greets everyone with an amiable smile and a lively twinkle in the eyes. If you observed closely, you would also have noticed how everyone responds to him with respect, for he is Professor Gabriel Kwok, for 33 years the head of keyboard studies, who is known for his witty yet insightful lessons. In January, we had the honour of visiting Professor Kwok, who told us how he became one of the most revered piano pedagogues in Hong Kong and shared with us his musings on some musical topics.

A Distinctive Pastime

Like most musicians, Gabriel’s road to music originated from his family; in this case, however, it did not start from his parents but rather from his cousin Alice Kwok. “When I was five, my brother started learning piano with my cousin, who was living on the opposite side of the street, so I tagged along as well.”

It was originally just a pastime for Gabriel. “I was born in the 50s, a time where there was simply nowhere to study music professionally in Hong Kong [the first degree-granting music department, CUHK’s Department of Music, was only established in 1965, and it was not until 1984 that the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) was founded].” To give Gabriel an incentive to practise, Alice encouraged him to take the ABRSM’s graded exams. “She taught me till grade 5, and then referred me to another piano teacher, the concert pianist Ms Tu Yueh-sien.” Under Ms Tu’s tutelage, Gabriel achieved a distinction in the ABRSM’s grade 8 exam in form three. Recognising his exemplary achievement, he was awarded an Associated Boards scholarship to pursue further studies at the Royal Academy of Music. “Most people who studied music in my generation displayed clear aspirations since youth, but not me – if it were not for the scholarship, I probably would have studied geography.”

Studying in London

Gabriel went to the Royal Academy of Music in 1972, studying piano under Guy Jonson. “I studied for six years at the Academy and was awarded the professional certificate. The performer’s course I took had an easy curriculum, which enabled more practice time for the students.”

Gabriel took away much more than pianistic techniques during his stay in London. “We cannot practise the piano at night, so I wandered to the concert halls, and listened to whatever concert I can find. Listening to all the maestros opened me up to the intricacies of the piano, and it was there that I picked up my passion in music.” The 70s was an opportune time to be in the city. “The older generation of legendary pianists frequently performed in London, and I had heard nearly all of the maestros, including Arrau, Bolet, Gilels, Kempff, Michelangeli, Richter and Rubinstein. I only hadn’t heard Horowitz because he only played in London in 1982 [his last performance in London had been in 1951], when I had already left.”

Of these performances, Gabriel was most impressed by Claudio Arrau. “It was the last few years in his performing career, but Claudio Arrau still wowed me with his musical integrity and sensitivity. I still remembered sitting in the choir stalls, looking at him playing on the stage and being impressed by his artistry and exquisite tone colour.”

Gabriel sometimes still listened to recordings by the maestro. “The older generation of pianists spent most of their time performing their repertoire in front of audiences and only record a CD after decades of playing. This allowed the CD to show a level of refinement and introspectiveness not available in contemporary recordings, where pianists were encouraged to record first before going on a concert tour to promote their catalogue.”

Dancing to the Beat

London was a city with a high cost of living, and it was not uncommon for students to hunt for part-time jobs. “I once worked in a post office, sorting out letters during Christmas. The work was so monotonous, and the pay was minimal. Later I found another job of playing as an accompanist for a ballet class.” One might expect it to be an easy job for an Academy student, but Gabriel thought otherwise. “It was like lip-syncing to films; you had to abide to a strict tempo without rubato, yet you still had to be musical. I still remember they used to do routine exercises by playing excerpts from Schumann’s Papillon, a piece which, to this day, still evokes in me the body movements of a dancer.”

Golden Accompaniment

“In my secondary school, there were only three out of 240 students in my year that received formal piano lessons. I was regularly called upon to accompany the choir, or to play hymns and school rallies in assemblies.” This experience showed Gabriel an alternative path to the solo concert career. “Even from my student days, I always enjoyed playing accompaniment. Upon returning to Hong Kong in 1978, I had the opportunity of playing with many singers and instrumentalists in concerts.”

Gabriel’s fame quickly grew, and he became recognised as the go-to accompanist for many visiting artists. “I once accompanied Jean-Pierre Rampal, ‘the Man with the Golden Flute’, when he first visited Hong Kong.” Gabriel jokingly said that it was not a fair concert: “I played a vast number of notes on the piano while he played much less on the flute!” It was a fruitful experience, nevertheless. “I remember vividly that he showed me how to play a habanera properly.”

Rampal remembered Gabriel, and they played together again two years later. “He was on a tight schedule and only arrived on the morning the day of the concert. The repertoire this time included difficult pieces like the Prokofiev and Franck sonatas, but we didn’t have much time to rehearse. It was scary but rewarding.”

Life as an accompanist was not all glitz and glamour. “I was once asked to accompany an Argentine singer who visited Hong Kong. We had a lovely rehearsal, but on the day of performance the concert was cancelled due to a typhoon. However, I didn’t receive a dime of compensation from the organiser, even though I did my part in the rehearsal.”

Gabriel stressed that it was not about the money. “In general, I am not concerned with the fee I am receiving, but it was the attitude towards accompanists that saddened me. I felt like I was not being respected. Once, I arrived at a concert hall for a vocal recital, only to discover that one of the strings on the concert grand was broken and the piano tuner hadn’t bothered to put back a new string on the piano. Of course, Hong Kong has improved a lot since then, and I am glad to see that accompanists are now getting their fair share of respect.”

Head of Keyboard Studies

Gabriel has been teaching at the HKAPA since its founding in 1984 and has been the head of keyboard studies at the institution since 1989. “When HKAPA was first founded, some students still preferred to study abroad and wouldn’t stay in Hong Kong.” This remained the case until 1992, when HKAPA started to offer degree-giving courses. “Most parents wanted their child to have a degree in music and therefore we were able to keep them studying in Hong Kong. Nowadays, students do apply to HKAPA after their study overseas.”.

Fast-forward to today, when in 2021 the HKAPA was ranked first in Asia for a third consecutive year in the QS World University Rankings by Subject (Performing Arts), a commendable feat for a 38-year-old institution.

Styles of Teaching

As a teacher, Gabriel’s teaching focuses on the musical sound, but, as the head of keyboard studies, he is equally open to other pedagogical approaches. “We always invite visiting artists to give masterclasses in HKAPA, and I remember that one lesson was not so interesting, as the artist kept correcting the student’s groundwork. I am sure the student felt bored as well, but amazingly, 45 minutes later, the student did play better. That’s why I encourage my students to try out different schools and teachers, as you don’t know what works for you until you have tried it yourself.”

A summer camp is a good candidate for this exposure. “Within a short period of time, one could learn a lot from the masters and peers. This also gives the students an opportunity to find a suitable teacher for further study overseas later on.”

It Is Just a Game

As a revered piano pedagogue, Gabriel has regularly been invited to judge at many international competitions. One person’s music is another’s noise, so, in a bid to be fair, competitions frequently devise their own voting systems. As the one giving the scores, Gabriel is circumspect about their effectiveness. “In these competitions, winners are often determined by a tallying of points, without any discussion between judges. Even if we ignore the impact of miscalculations that happens not infrequently, the highly subjective nature of point-scoring means that we can get totally different results if we replace the jury. That’s why, when I vote, I try not to play favourites and game the system; I just follow my instincts and accept that who I think is the best does not always win. It is just a game; you just follow the rules and hope for the best.”

Competitions are not only about winning, and Gabriel derives much enjoyment from listening to the contestants perform. “It was a delight to listen to all these impeccable interpretations from young pianists from different countries, and the standard of playing only got better every year. The technical competence of the pianists today can be very amazing.”

Gabriel highlighted the rapid rise to prominence of Korean pianists. “I once judged in a competition where they selected contestants based on anonymous audition tapes. Out of the 40 finalists, 20 of them were Koreans. What made it even more impressive was the fact that the winners were studying in Korea but not overseas. This is a testament to the successfulness of Korea’s music education programme, something I appreciate a lot as a fellow music educator.”

Giving Back to Society

Unlike his Korean counterparts, Gabriel did not feel the need to push his students to competitions. “I discourage my students from going to competitions for competition’s sake. If you were playing well, of course you could go enter competitions to gain experience, but you must be well prepared to do so.”

Gabriel encourages his students to focus on internal motivations instead. “Some kids played the piano because they got a sense of pride and accomplishment from winning prizes in local competitions. However, this is not a healthy reason to study music, as one should also love music in order to pursue music as a career. In fact, one of my greatest enjoyments as a music educator was to see students fall in love with music. They do not have to be brilliant players; I just want to give inspiration and hope to open some doors for them.”

No one is born a teacher, and Gabriel’s characteristic wit in lessons also developed from experience. “When I first started to teach, I learnt a lot from the students. Throughout the years, I experimented with different teaching techniques, and I came to acquire decent knowledge on what paths to take, what works and what doesn’t, and I wish to pass on this legacy to my students.”

This led Gabriel to become picky about who he teaches. “Some people believe in teaching without distinction, but I don’t think I have enough energy to teach everyone. I think a student should study with the right teacher at the right time.” It is only natural, with this philosophy, for Gabriel to have high expectations of his students. “I prefer teaching students that later on would take up music as his/her career. The study of music is not only to satisfy oneself; one should also aim to contribute back to the society, to advance music in one way or other.”

Beethoven 32

As a case in point, the Beethoven 32 Project is Gabriel’s latest contribution back to society.

“It was originally Jimmy Shiu’s idea.” The head of RTHK Radio 4 had approached the professor back in early 2019, proposing to film the full set of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas on radio and TV. “A complete piano-sonata cycle, played by 32 Hong Kong pianists, with each pianist playing a sonata.”

As one can imagine, it was a logistical nightmare. “It was not hard to find someone who wants to play a Beethoven sonata; the challenge was to find the most suitable pianist for each one.” To this end, Gabriel looked to his colleagues and students. “I asked all of them to submit the sonatas they would like to play, and then consolidated their choices into a 32×32 chart.” Some popular sonatas had multiple contenders, so Gabriel had to make the final decisions. “I even offered to listen to their playing before the recording sessions.”

The whole cycle was originally meant to air in December 2020 as a celebration for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, but the pandemic wreaked havoc on Gabriel’s plans. “The whole project was delayed for one year.”

The pandemic also had other unforeseen consequences. “Some alumni living overseas didn’t want to endure a 21-day quarantine just for a few hours of filming.” The committee considered recording remotely, but ultimately rejected the idea. “Most of the pianists did not have any professional recording equipment and we could not have quality control over the recording, so the idea did not go through.”

Gabriel eventually assembled 32 pianists all willing to be in Hong Kong, but it was still a roller-coaster ride up to the day of recording. “Every day, I would wake up and check if there were any updates to the government regulations. Our recording sessions were scheduled in HKAPA, where the RTHK crew had set up the stage and lighting at the Academy Concert Hall. It was a complicated process, so if we could not finish recording all 32 sonatas on time, or if the government had announced the closure of the venue, then the whole project would fall apart.”

Gabriel recounted one close encounter to failure. “One of the performers was residing in Macao, so he arranged to come over at 2:30pm a few days before his filming. It was lucky he chose that time, because the government decided to close the borders at 3pm that day! If he had left half an hour later, he would not have been able to make it for the recording.”

To ensure the quality of the recording, Gabriel stationed three students in turn as backstage score readers. “Every pianist was allotted a certain number of hours. It was not easy to play under such conditions, especially with a mask on. As the music director of the project, I attended all the recording sessions and made suggestions and advice on some technical recording issues to the pianists.” 

Unnatural and Great 

The Beethoven 32 project was quite stressful for Gabriel, but it made him appreciate the composer even more. “When I was young, Beethoven was a composer I couldn’t quite understand – he did not have flowing melodies likes Mozart or Chopin, nor did he have heart-wrenching harmonies like Rachmaninoff. When I grew up, however, I found that there was something magical in Beethoven that compelled me to listen again and again.”

Gabriel likened this to delicious food. “I love eating sushi very much, but even I can’t have it every day, or else I would get fed up easily. It is the same with music, where some works could get rather stale with repeated playing, teaching and listening.” Intriguingly, this was not the case with Beethoven’s sonatas. “Even though I had to listen to these 32 sonatas a lot of times last year, I found that I had not grew tired of any of it. In fact, even though I had played them many times before, I still discovered new things in the score every time I study the scores.”

“When playing Beethoven, we cannot use our own musical instincts to guess what will happen next – Beethoven will always surprise you. Beethoven wrote very unnatural music, but that’s why he was a great composer.”  

Interviewed by Vantage Music and Julie Kuok, written by Chester Leung.