Interview with Lio Kuok Man

Vantage Music & Timothy Sun | July 2020 | Hong Kong 


Looking back, the start of July offered a brief respite from the tempest caused by the second and third waves of the coronavirus. Social distancing regulations were gradually loosening, and the streets were getting crowded. It is in this context that we met Lio Kuok Man, freshly released from his quarantine, who kindly shared with us the highs and lows he encountered whilst working towards his current success as a highly sought-after orchestra and opera conductor.

Chopstick Dreams

Macau was not a very musical place in the nineties. As Lio recalled, there were scarcely any public concerts, and the only local orchestra was the Macau Chamber Orchestra. Predecessor to the Macau Symphony Orchestra, the Macau Chamber Orchestra was a part-time community orchestra formed mainly by Portuguese musicians, and as such, they could only hold one concert each month. Hoping to introduce Lio to music, Lio’s mother, herself also an ardent music lover, brought the four-year-old Lio along to one of these concerts.

At first, Lio was excited for an entirely unrelated reason. “It was fun because I seldom get to go out at night.” As the concert started, Lio fidgeted around in his seat while the orchestra was warming up noisily on stage. However, everyone immediately hushed when a serious-looking man came out on stage, who Lio later learnt was the Brazilian conductor Veiga Jardim. Lio remembered seeing the conductor look left and right before raising his baton. Suddenly, as if by magic, the rich melody of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 filled the hall.

The young Lio was awestruck. “I knew Jardim was doing something with his ‘chopstick’ which made the magic happen, and I made up my mind to be a conductor from that moment.” When Lio announced his newfound ambition, however, his mother was naturally not convinced. Perceiving it as a general interest in classical music, Lio’s mother arranged for Lio to learn the piano. 

Getting Serious

Being a pianist was not Lio’s initial choice, but it gave him entry to the professional music scene. In 1996, Lio won first prize at a piano competition in Macau, earning him a scholarship to study piano under Professor Gabriel Kwok at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Lio credited the Academy as the impetus to his musical career. “I had decent piano training in Macau, but I was woefully ignorant about everything else. Before I came to Hong Kong, I didn’t even know how many piano concertos Chopin had written!” The Academy, with its holistic music education program, broadened Lio’s musical exposure and allowed him to experience music in a whole new way. “During my seven years at the Academy, Professor Kwok emphasized to me the importance of sound quality over speed and virtuosity. He taught me how to play well-rounded sounds that are pleasant to the ear, and he always guided me and experimented with me.” Professor Kwok’s approach to music had a great impact on Lio, and it would develop to become a distinguishing feature of Lio’s conducting.

Studying at the Academy was not easy, especially for a Macau student in the nineties. Lio recalled the hardship he faced transitioning from a junior program to an undergraduate degree. “The undergraduate programme required certain results in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). Since Macau did not have any public exams, normally a graduation certificate could be used as a substitute to meet the requirements. However, since I skipped a year in Macau, I did not even have a graduation certificate from my secondary school.” Notifying the Academy of his unique situation, Lio was allowed to continue his studies on the condition that he passes the HKCEE with a B grade or above in the five core subjects by the time of his graduation.

Thus started Lio’s ambitious attempt to take on the HKCEE whilst studying at the Academy. It was immensely stressful to prepare for both disciplines within two years, but Lio was supported by his intense passion for music. “I could have stayed in Macau for one year to get the graduation certificate, but I did not want to waste my time. I was determined to make it work.” To achieve the required results, Lio adopted a rigorous daily schedule: after taking Academy courses in the morning, Lio would study for HKCEE in the afternoon, before going back to the Academy for a quick dinner and overnight practice, sometimes even until 3 a.m.

Double Degree

Hard work paid off, and Lio graduated from the Academy with first-class honors. Setting his sights overseas, Lio pursued a master’s degree in piano at the Juilliard School of Music before finally realizing his childhood dream at the Curtis Institute of Music, majoring in conducting and harpsichord performance.

Lio explained his interest in the period instrument. “When I was at the Academy, the role of an accompanist was not popular amongst piano majors, but I volunteered to play orchestral reductions for soloists in auditions so that I could learn how the different orchestral parts interacted with each other.” To Lio, the harpsichord was a logical extension to play on the keyboard and conduct at the same time. “Baroque composers frequently conducted their pieces while playing continuo on the harpsichord, and this performance practice got me interested in the instrument.”

By the time of his graduation in 2009, Lio had spent so much time on the harpsichord that he already qualified for a double major. “Originally, I had no plans for a double degree, but the school counted my lesson hours and gave me my second certificate.”

Premature Termination

Unfortunately, the year 2009 was not a good time to be a graduate. At a time where stock markets were plunging and companies worldwide were going bankrupt from the financial crisis, the American classical music scene was not faring any better.

Lio detailed his first engagement with an orchestra. “I had secured a conducting position at a small orchestra in a town near Philadelphia.” Ever the hardworking conductor, Lio had prepared the scores meticulously, even mailing the part scores to that orchestra in advance. One week before his debut, however, Lio received grave news. “The orchestra called me and told me not to come. ‘There will be no more concerts,’ they said, ‘because we had gone bankrupt!’” And so, Lio was out of a job before he had even started.

To Boston and Beyond

At Lio’s most desperate moment, he received help from an unexpected party. Yip Wai Hong, music director of the Pan Asia Symphony Orchestra in Hong Kong, called and asked if Lio would be interested to conduct a concert or two during the summer. “When I was young, I had played the piano with the Orchestra before. Yip was the conductor at that time, and when he learnt of my graduation from Curtis, he immediately contacted me.” That same year, Lio was also invited by Lo King Man, then-principal of the Academy, to conduct an opera in Hong Kong.

These engagements provided the confidence boost that Lio needed, and it helped kick-start his career. Shortly afterwards, Lio got in touch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who agreed to hire him as a part-time assistant conductor. “Essentially, I am an assistant conductor on call. Whenever they needed me, they would call me, and I would fly over to them.”

The implication of a part-time job is that Lio had plenty of time to himself. To further improve his conducting skills, Lio decided to enroll in the New England Conservatory (NEC). “NEC is known for its extensive curriculum and excellent tutelage, so I had always wanted to study there. Combined with its convenient location and full sponsorship, it was too good an opportunity for me to pass up on.” Lio auditioned successfully for NEC’s highly selective orchestral conducting program and, for the following two years, he lived a double life as a student and part-time assistant conductor, flying all over the world as was necessary.

A Conductor’s Job

In 2014, Lio was appointed as assistant conductor to the Philadelphia Orchestra—the first time an Asian has held the position. We asked Lio how he felt about his identity as an Asian in the Western classical music scene.

“I didn’t feel outlandish or ostracized at all in the Philadelphia Orchestra. A lot of the principals in the orchestra were Asians, so I didn’t have much difficulty fitting in.” Lio found that most orchestral members, no matter their age or ethnicity, were often nice to the conductor. “For example, I once found an ambiguity in a part of the score, where the dynamics could be interpreted as forte or mezzo-forte. The musicians were very helpful and told me how previous conductors would tackle the piece whilst reverting to me for the final decision.” The musicians’ advice allowed Lio to make informed decisions whilst drawing on the expertise of legendary conductors, and he worked hard to maintain a conducive environment for these musical exchanges to happen.

“When I am conducting, my goal is to bring together the best of every musician, to get them to inspire each other, not only between themselves, but also with the conductor, being inspired by the conductor and inspiring the conductor in return.” Lio likened the role of a conductor to that of the guest CEO in a company. “Even though I have the power to do anything I wanted, I cannot ignore the history of the company and change everything. Similarly, I respect the sounds and traditions of each orchestra, and my job as a conductor is to understand the orchestra, and to find out what I can do to help the orchestra develop.”

Response to Discrimination

Things were not as smooth outside the orchestra, and Lio recounted one such experience. “I once auditioned for an orchestra where at the end of the interview, one of their selection committee members mentioned, off the record of course, that they were only looking for an American.”

Lio dismissed such cases as common discrimination. “If you think that others were discriminating against you, it would only distract you from what you should really be doing.” Instead of blaming it on the other party, Lio would analyze the ‘why’ of the situation. “If they didn’t hire me because I was not an American, I would go one level deeper, and think about the underlying reason.” Rejecting the superficial reason of his skin color, Lio sought to understand the orchestra’s rationale. “Is it because the job requires fluency in English? Or does the job require an intimate understanding of the community?”

“Let’s say there was a Latino community in the orchestra,” Lio hypothesized, “then it would be reasonable for the committee to want to hire someone who could speak Spanish. When I think about it that way, I would treat it less as discrimination, but more as a job requirement. I would ask myself whether I can satisfy those requirements. If yes, great, but if not, then I would just get over it.”

Lio summarized his response to discrimination. “The most important thing in such a situation is to know how you should respond to the event, how you accept the outcome or prove that you are well-qualified.”

Lessons from the Epidemic

Given the epidemic, one common challenge which all musicians had struggled with was the lack of live performances. Since January, the imposition of stringent crowd control measures meant that concert houses worldwide were forced to close. Some orchestras turned to online concerts, but to Lio, concert halls were irreplaceable. “To me, the audience is part of the performance. Each breath of the audience, their silence (or lack thereof) between the movements, and their claps and responses, all contribute to the magical atmosphere of the performance.”

It is not to say that online concerts do not have their value. “The advancement of technology allowed us to introduce classical music to more people, but it is similar to the advent of compact discs. CDs were a good substitute to listening to music in concert halls, but it did not, and could not, replace live performances.”

Inspirations and Advices

Lio shared with us some of his most memorable musical moments. “When I was in Curtis, Simon Rattle once came for a masterclass.” While Lio learnt a lot of conducting techniques from Rattle that day, he was most impressed when Rattle took up the baton and demonstrated. “When he raised his hand, the orchestra suddenly sounded totally different.” To this day, Lio is still unable to figure out what Rattle had done to bring about the change. “What I know, however, is that it wasn’t only his baton movements—even if I copied his hand gestures or eye motions, I couldn’t achieve the same effect.” Lio noted that Rattle’s music came from his heart, and the feeling carried through to the orchestra. “It was indeed an inspiring moment to be able to stand so close to him, and feel the aura emanating from this legendary figure.”

Music from the heart was a hallmark of distinguished musicians. “I still remember Aaron Rosand, a violin teacher at Curtis,” Lio reminisced. Rosand had had a major illness and cancelled most of his concerts that year, but he had still consented to play Brahms’s violin concerto at the school’s concert. “When Rosand ended on a high note in the cadenza, my classmates and I were so moved by his playing that we were all wet with tears. It was not due to the perfectness of pitch, but it was about music from the soul. At that moment, it seemed like this would be the last time I would hear him play.”

Lio cautioned against taking shortcuts in music. “One thing I noticed about the current generation is that they are too direct. They know what they want, so they look to the successful and try to imitate them.” Lio stressed that art cannot arise from mere copying. “If you want to play a piece, you can of course start learning by imitating. However, copying can only get you that far. Eventually, you will have to find your own way, and you will need to invest in yourself. You may go down the wrong path, you may feel depressed and defeated, but that’s when you stand back up, reflect on your failures, and ultimately become a better musician.”

Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Chester Leung