40-year in Retrospect

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Achievements in the Past Four Decades
An Overview of Music Office’s History

Writer: Dennis Wu
The Early Years

The Music Office was established under the Education Department in 1977. In 1973, British musician David C Stone visited Hong Kong with the Menuhin Festival Orchestra for performances during the First Hong Kong Arts Festival. It marked the beginning of his close connection with Hong Kong. In 1976, he accepted the invitation of the Education Department to become the Music Advisor to the Government and to make concrete recommendations and proposals to the Government on music education in Hong Kong. He then submitted a proposal in January 1977, and the Music Office was subsequently established by the Government in October the same year. The establishment of the Office was to provide systematic instrumental music training for young people in Hong Kong, and to promote music through the organisation of music activities for the public.

In its early years, the Office took over the instrumental training classes scattered all over the territory, which were organised by the Music Section of the Inspection Division of the Education Department, the Hong Kong Schools Music and Speech Association and some secondary schools. The Office implemented a new scheme called the “Youth Music Service” which provided instrumental and ensemble training for young people aged 23 or below. The Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra (HKYSO) was established the following year, and its inaugural concert was held on 29 August at the Hong Kong City Hall the same year. There were 93 members in the orchestra, aged from 8 to 23, from various schools and universities, giving performances with David C Stone as the Principal Conductor. The HKYSO has become a leading youth ensemble within a few years, engaging in high profile performances with international acclaimed musicians, such as performing with Fou T’song in 1979.

That year also saw the establishment of the Hong Kong Youth Symphonic Band (HKYSB) and the Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra (HKYCO). In 1979, the HKYCO made its first trip to the United Kingdom (UK), playing the role of music ambassador for Hong Kong and bringing Chinese music to the British community. The HKYSB has been staging performances in the Hong Kong Youth Symphonic Band Festival, later renamed as the Hong Kong Youth Band Festival, at major venues in Hong Kong since its establishment, attracting over ten thousand people during the first two years after its establishment, which was rare for music events in the Hong Kong community in the 1970s.

Music for the Millions

Apart from providing instrumental music training for the youths, promoting public appreciation of music was also an essential task of the Music Office in its early years. Since 1978, the Music for the Millions (MFM) concerts have been staged to promote fine music among young people through an entertaining and educational music programme. The first MFM concert was held in December 1977 at the Homantin Government Secondary School. Members of the audience were students and teachers of surrounding schools. Subsequently, the MFM concerts have been frequently staged in schools, community centres and halls over the territory to bring joy to the public as well as to promote enjoyable Chinese and Western music among the young generation.

In 1978, Joseph Koo, the “Godfather of Cantopop”, was invited to compose the MFM theme song. The delightful tune was proven to be the staple of this ever popular series. The lyrics were a collective creation by the staff of the Office at the time. “The sound of music is carried by the wind, joyful and relaxing. Singing and playing musical instruments bring you joy and fun” reflect the mission and objectives of the Office.

The theme song has been widely spread because of the MFM concerts. During the early years, the MFM concerts were held rather frequently. By July 1980, over 1,000 concerts had been held. The 2,500th performance was staged at the Hong Kong City Hall in February 1985. As at 1987, more than 3,600 MFM concerts were performed for over 3,300,000 people in the first ten years. The theme song was widely popular among young students and has been rearranged into different versions performed by the Chinese ensemble, the string ensemble, the wind ensemble and even the symphony orchestra. It has become a symbol of the Music Office.

Vigorous Development in the 1980s

The 1980s not only saw the rapid economic growth in Hong Kong, but also confirmation of the objectives and mission of the Music Office. The Music Office was tasked to improve the quality of the instrumental training and build up an audience on the one hand, and to explore new realms for music development on the other.

In 1982, 2,400 trainees were enrolled in 489 classes under the Instrumental Music Training Scheme. The number of trainees rose to about 4,000 in 1986 and even more than 5,000 in its climax. Every year, an Annual Gala was held for elite performers to meet and perform at the Academic Community Hall and later the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai, which was the second largest performance venue for sports and entertainment programmes in Hong Kong after the Hong Kong Coliseum. The gala in 1989 involved the participation of some 1,000 trainees and members of the orchestras/ bands for the first time.

The Hong Kong Youth Music Camp was first held in 1980. It is an annual two-week summer event which provides recreational activities and intensive music training in local camp sites for some 400 young musicians to exchange with instructors, conductors and young musicians from Hong Kong, overseas and Mainland China. When the camp comes to the end, there are public concerts for campers to show what they have learnt. The music camp is one of the most popular events of the Music Office as it enables campers to perform on stage after intensive training and to exchange with other music lovers of their own ages.

At that time, ensemble training was also extended to younger children. The Hong Kong Children’s Symphonic Band (HKCSB) (initially the Hong Kong Children’s Marching Band) was established in 1979, to provide wind ensemble training for children aged from 8 to 14. The Hong Kong Youth Strings (HKYS) was founded in 1985. In addition, choirs were set up in the 1980s. The Music Office Youth Choir (MOYC), initially the Island Youth Choir, was set up in 1980 whereas the Chinese Folk Singing Children’s Ensemble (which is now the Music Office Children’s Choir (MOCC)) was set up the year after.

In the 1980s, the Office organised the Hong Kong Young Musicians’ Awards jointly with Radio 4 of Radio Television Hong Kong and the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong to identify talent in music composition and performances. Awardees included composers Victor Chan, Clarence Mak, Hui Cheung-wai, Ng Chiu-shing, Lam Shun, etc.

In the mid-1980s, an effective music training system tailored to meet the needs of school age children from different social strata was established. Instrumental training covered a wide range of Chinese and Western musical instruments, including Western string, wind, brass and percussion instruments, as well as Chinese bowed-string, plucked-string, wind and percussion instruments. The Office also implemented the Musical Instruments Hire Scheme to provide trainees with musical instruments for home practice at a modest hiring charge. The scheme benefited a considerable number of students and provided learning opportunities to those in financial difficulties to help promote music in the community.

At that time, Music Centres were set up in different districts over the territory. The earliest four centres were located at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in Wan Chai, Tung Ping Building on Prince Edward Road, Mong Kok (which is now Bijou Apartments), Yan Hau Mansion in Ngau Tau Kok and Cheung Yiu Building in Tsuen Wan. New centres were later set up in other districts like Yau Ma Tei, Yuen Long and Sha Tin.

“Hong Kong Jing Ying” and Concert Tours

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the Office had actively explored overseas performance opportunities for local young musicians to perform outside Hong Kong and to exchange with different audiences and musicians around the world. Trainees participating in overseas concert tours had the chance to display the uniqueness of Hong Kong as a place embracing both Chinese and Western cultures. Elite trainees and young artists from other art fields such as dance were selected to join a programme called “Hong Kong Jing Ying” (literally means “Hong Kong Elites”) to go overseas for performances. The name “Hong Kong Jing Ying” was adopted to explicitly state that these brilliant young artists were all from Hong Kong. From 1980 to 1984, “Hong Kong Jing Ying” visited Israel, Cyprus, Australia and the UK for Chinese and Western music as well as dance performances.

The Office’s orchestras and bands also went on major overseas touring performances. In 1979, the HKYSO and HKYCO made their first visit to the UK and France and performed in such cities as London, Bournemouth and Edinburgh, bringing not only orchestral music performances but also traditional performances like lion dances. Music commentator Nicolas Kenyon wrote, in the Financial Times, that “there is clearly a wealth of enthusiasm and talent in these players who express themselves through the music they feel at home with.”

Later on, overseas concert tours became more frequent. The countries/ places visited by the Music Office orchestras/ bands include Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, France, the UK, Israel as well as various cities in the Mainland, and those recently visited countries/ places include Austria, the Czech Republic, Kagoshima, Jeju, Taiwan, Qingdao and Yekaterinburg of Russia.

Formulation of Music Policy

One of the major roles of the Office in the early 1980s was to make recommendations to the Government on cultural policies. On 11 December 1978, the then Secretary for Home Affairs Li Fook-kow suggested in a government document that a committee for the formulation of “Hong Kong Music Development Plan” should be set up with the Music Administrator of the Music Office as the chairman. Members of the committee included principal officials from relevant government departments, such as the Urban Services Department, Education Department and Social Welfare Department, as well as music experts such as Professor David Gwilt, Chairman of the Music Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong at that time. The committee was set up to formulate long-term proposals on music training and development of music activities. The Music Administrator at that time was Gordon Siu, who was later succeeded by Elizabeth Wong.

After two years, the committee submitted a 350-page proposal to the Government in December 1980 giving a detailed account of the performance venues in Hong Kong, music programming, music education and training, the music sector and trade development with relevant statistics, and also recommendations to the Government on music development issues. The recommendations only not covered existing training programmes, but also included an overall plan, such as the construction of new performance venues and formulation of new conditions of hire, establishment of a tertiary music institute for providing comprehensive music training in Hong Kong, etc. Various existing music infrastructure, organisations and programmes in Hong Kong can be traced back to this far-reaching proposal.

In the meantime, following the changes in government structure, the Office had undergone a number of restructuring exercises in the 1980s. In 1980, the Music Office was transferred from the Education Department to the former Home Affairs Branch of the Government Secretariat; on 15 October 1981, a new Recreation and Culture Department was set up as a result of the restructuring of the Home Affairs Branch, and the Music Office became one of the three operation units of the department. At that time, the Government indicated that the Recreation and Culture Department was an upgrade of the Recreation and Culture Section of the former Home Affairs Branch, which was responsible for co-ordinating recreational and cultural activities, as a sign of support to the development of performing arts in Hong Kong and, in particular, to meet the needs of the young generation to make better use of their leisure time. In 1985, the Government set up the former Municipal Services Branch under the Government Secretariat, and the Office was put directly under the Municipal Services Branch.

The Challenges of the 1990s

After the restructuring, the Office continued the role of nurturing music talent and promoting music. In celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Office specially presented the Youth Chinese Music Week in 1987, and invited the renowned Chinese instrumentalist Xiao Baiyong to visit Hong Kong. The Youth Band Week and the Youth String Music Week were also subsequently held, which became major events of the Office during the year. Apart from inviting overseas renowned musicians to participate in performances, the Office also organised regular activities, such as intensive music performances, masterclasses and talks.

In early 1993, the Government issued the Arts Policy Review Report - Consultation Paper, which unveiled the plan to hand the Music Office over to non-governmental organisations. One of the possible options was to put it under the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts established in 1984. The proposal aroused grave concern in the community at that time. Although the Government emphasised that there was no plan to reduce expenditures on instrumental training, different sectors of the community were concerned that if the Government gave up the Office, the grassroots probably could not afford the cost of music training and musical instruments. At that time, the Government also proposed to put the Office under the former Municipal Councils (Urban Council and Regional Council) for continuous operation.

Eventually, the Music Office was taken over by the former Municipal Councils on 1 August 1995 and all its staff left the civil service accordingly. The Office was renamed as “音樂事務處” in Chinese while its English name “Music Office” remained unchanged. The Office was overseen by a management committee jointly established by the former Municipal Councils.

Although the Music Office was no longer part of the Government, the roles of the Office remained the same. In 1996, the number of trainees joining the instrument training classes remained at the level of 3,000 a year. The monthly tuition fee for elementary classes was $110 while the tuition fee for advanced classes was $220.

Since 1995, the Hong Kong Youth Symphonic Band Festival, the Hong Kong Youth String Music Festival and the Chinese Music Festival were put together and renamed as the “Hong Kong Youth Music Interflows”. Featuring contests of Chinese orchestras, symphonic bands, string orchestras and symphony orchestras, the Interflows provide a performing platform for school music groups to share their musical experience and learn from one another. Guest musicians are invited to serve as adjudicators and to give ratings to performances. The Interflows has become one of the major events of the Music Office, and schools participated in it every year.

Reaching out to More People

After the restructuring, the most important new task of the Music Office was to implement the Outreach Music Interest Courses in December 1996. Unlike the instrumental training classes which aim to provide formal music training to young people, the outreach interest classes are targeted at the general public who are interested in music.

Since 1999, the Music Office has regularly organised large-scale music carnivals to bring music and joy to the public through a series of spectacular programmes. Recently, the music carnival has been converted to Music Marathon performed by a number of Music Office youth orchestras/ bands and choirs in an outdoor setting, allowing members of the public to learn more about and appreciate all-time favourites from East to West in a relaxing atmosphere.

The MFM concerts are still major music promotion activities. The Music Office Instructors’ Ensembles and Orchestras continue to stage hundreds of MFM concerts in schools and cultural venues every year.

The New Millennium

Following the dissolution of the former Municipal Councils on 1 January 2000, the work of the two councils was taken up by the newly established Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. After being taken over by the LCSD, the Music Office came under the structure of the Government again. The work objectives and strategies of the Music Office, however, remained unchanged. The Music Office Spectacular held on 22 and 23 March 2001 involved the participation of 1 000 young musicians of HKYSO, HKYCO, HKYSB, HKCSB, MOYC and MOCC, together with a number of Music Office district orchestras. This is the largest Music Office event following the special performances in 1989.

Building a Platform for Musical Exchanges in Hong Kong

Over the past 40 years, the Music Office has witnessed the prosperous music development in Hong Kong. Apart from leading the public to a wonderful music world, it nurtures a large pool of top music talent in Hong Kong. A considerable number of former trainees of the Music Office continue to pursue their dreams along the musical path. Some joined the music profession and have worked in local Chinese and Western orchestras, choirs and schools or music groups from around the world. Some joined the Government, arts organisations or the business sector, playing a pivotal role. Not only do they enhance the performance standard of the music sector in Hong Kong, but they also make significant contributions to such areas as arts administration, education and policy formulation.

The three essential tasks of the Music Office are: to provide music training for young people; to organise music activities for them; and to promote music among the general public in Hong Kong. To date, these three objectives remain unchanged. A large number of people have benefited from the services provided by the Music Office. In recent years, the Music Office has actively promoted exchanges between music students in Hong Kong and musicians around the world and played the role as a connector, linking up music organisations from different parts of the world. In the past 40 years, Hong Kong young musicians have been led by the Music Office to perform extensively around the globe so that the sounds of music performed by our young musicians can be heard in different parts of the world. Outbound performances recently given by the advanced level orchestras and choirs under the Music Office alone include: the HKYCO’s tours to Taiwan, and Shanghai and Shenyang in 2011 and 2016 respectively; the HKYS’s tour to Austria and the Czech Republic in 2012; the participation of the HKYSB in the band festivals in Jeju, Korea and Chiayi, Taiwan in 2013 and 2015 respectively; the HKYSO’s performances at the Eurasia International Music Festival in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2015. In addition, the MOYC was awarded two Gold Diplomas and presented with the Category Winner Award in the “Sing’n’joy Vienna 2014 - 29th International Franz Schubert Choir Competition and Festival” held in Vienna, and it also won three gold awards and two category winner awards in the “Singapore International Choral Festival 2016”.

The Music Office also assists visiting youth music groups from around the world in organising exchange activities in Hong Kong, and invites overseas musicians, such as violin master Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Fou Ts’ong and conductor Georg Tintner, to serve as guest conductors, hosts of masterclasses and talk speakers. These activities help foster exchanges between Hong Kong young musicians and their overseas and mainland counterparts.

Over the past 40 years, the Music Office has built a solid music learning platform for young people in Hong Kong to receive professional music training and to take part in challenging music group performances, overseas concert tours and exchanges with local, mainland and overseas young musicians. This music platform is indispensable to the cultural development in Hong Kong. With such a platform, new generations of musicians and artists in Hong Kong’s music and cultural sectors are nurtured.