THE STORY OF A FEMALE CONDUCTOR
Hong Kong’s Wing-sie Yip
What could be a better dream for a musician than training abroad and coming back home to accept a conducting job in the best local orchestra at age 26? Extremely difficult for anyone, one would say, even in this era where conducting opportunities are expanding. And simply impossible for a female conductor! Yet in the mid-1980’s Hong Kong’s Wing-sie Yip, did exactly this. Coming back from a prestigious education at the Royal College of Music, London and graduate work at Indiana University, she immediately became Resident Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986. In 1990, Wing-sie Yip was named one of Hong Kong’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons. Now, as a long-time staple in the Hong Kong music scene, she continues to push orchestral quality and variety forward -- and secure new young listeners -- through her own Hong Kong Sinfonietta. She has been Music Director and Principal Conductor of this organization since 2002. In 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University of Hong Kong and was bestowed “Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the Ministry of Culture and Communication of France in 2007. In 2010, she was conferred as a Fellow of the Royal College of Music (FRCM), London.
In the following interview, we talk to Wing-sie about her experiences. Her September 28th concert in Vancouver began the orchestra’s first-ever North American tour, ending in New York and Montreal two weeks later. A notable feature of this concert was that it featured two soloists in two concertos. The talents of brilliant young violinist Tian-wa Yang were showcased in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2, while the orchestra’s Associate Artist, Sze-wang Loo was the stimulating soloist in ‘Twas the Thawing Wind’ for Chinese sheng and orchestra by Dr. Hing-yan Chan. This last piece was particularly innovative and involving, perhaps the highlight of the evening. Wing-sie Yip encouraged tight and precise orchestral playing throughout.
1. IT WAS PROBABLY NOT ACCIDENTAL THAT YOU WERE INTERESTED IN CONDUCTING FROM A VERY EARLY AGE SINCE YOUR FATHER WAS A CHOIR CONDUCTOR. WERE YOU STRONGLY ENCOURAGED TO PURSUE A CONDUCTING CAREER AT THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC (RCM) WHERE YOU DID YOUR FIRST DEGREE?
When I entered RCM in 1978, I actually wanted to do a performance major in violin. I did take a conducting course, but no one was actually allowed to direct an orchestra until after graduation anyway. I had to be content with the excellent lessons given me by Professors John Forster and Norman Del Mar. But my interest continued to grow: I thought it would be so much nicer to practice a work with others around than just practicing the violin by myself. My father was not fully convinced by this idea and suggested that we wait for an expert opinion on my potential. It was my good luck that the Head of RCM, (now Sir) David Willcocks, actually visited Hong Kong in 1982 as part of a choral festival and talked with my father. Sir David saw me conduct after returning, and he was very encouraging, saying that ‘I had a good ear and a strong control of the orchestra’.
2. THE IDEA OF AN ASIAN FEMALE CONDUCTOR MUST HAVE BEEN SORT OF A STRANGE ANIMAL AT THIS POINT IN TIME. WERE THERE OTHER FEMALE STUDENTS IN RCM WHO SHARED YOUR CONDUCTING GOAL?
Not really, but there were other Asians, mainly pianists from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
3. AFTER YOU ENTERED THE GRADUATE PROGRAM AT INDIANA AND EVENTUALLY WERE ABLE TO SPEND SUMMERS AT TANGLEWOOD, YOU WERE ABLE TO MEET CONDUCTORS WHO REALLY GAVE YOU DIRECTION. WHICH CONDUCTOR(S) DO YOU THINK TAUGHT YOU THE MOST AND SERVED AS ROLE MODELS FOR YOU? WHAT EVENTUALLY HAPPENED TO THE VIOLIN?
I entered the Indiana program as a double major in violin and conducting. By the end of my course work, I really wanted to pursue conducting. I gave myself two years to prove myself as a conductor, but I simply could not manage the violin at the same time. I gave up the violin right after my graduation recital. The three conductors that really gave me inspiration and direction were Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Meier. Meier was a most devoted and illuminating teacher. I was so fortunate to study with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood in the summer of 1986. He seemed to be always available to students; he enjoyed them, worked with them and was always the last person to leave a gathering late at night. I met Seiji Ozawa on a number of occasions and he consistently went out of his way for me. I still remember the Tokyo conducting competition when he was on the jury. I only finished fourth in this, but I received a phone call from Maestro Ozawa the next day. He went on for 20 minutes, patiently telling me everything that was wrong with my conducting, and then everything that was right about it. He invited me to his class. It was a brief class and he could only spend two hours with students. But he gave me a full half hour. He later invited me for a formal audition in Japan, but I could not go because I needed to perform duties in Hong Kong.
4. YOU SEEMED TO MOVE SO EASILY INTO YOUR FIRST POSITION AS RESIDENT CONDUCTOR OF THE HONG KONG PHILHARMONIC WHEN YOU WERE ONLY 26. WAS IT REALLY THIS EASY?
Maybe, I was just lucky. I am a Hong Kong native, and there were few Hong Kong conductors around. There just happened to be career opportunities available at that time. But you must remember that Hong Kong did not have long traditions of performing Western classical music, so it also did not have its prejudices. It also allowed a greater role for women in general; for example, in business. I think the Hong Kong press sort of liked the idea of a female conductor from a marketing perspective. I was a ‘novelty’. Hong Kong audiences seemed pretty neutral as to whether a man or woman led an orchestra – as long as they got the job done! I know that this was not true elsewhere. Two of my female conducting colleagues from Tanglewood had a very difficult time getting any attention at all in Europe.
5. WHAT EXACTLY DID YOUR HONG KONG PHILHARMONIC APPOINTMENT INVOLVE?
Many things. I did spend 10-12 weeks with the orchestra, but I was also in charge of the education program, and I trained the youth orchestra. I also taught in the Academy.
6. THE GRAMOPHONE HAS JUST PUBLISHED A LONG ARTICLE ON THE SECRETS OF CONDUCTORS AND HOW THEY ENGAGE AN ORCHESTRA, CITING EYE CONTACT, ARM GESTURES, VERBAL DESCRIPTION OF THE MUSIC, INTERACTION WITH THE PLAYERS, HUMOUR, ETC. IS THERE ANYTHING A FEMALE CONDUCTOR MIGHT PLACE MORE EMPHASIS ON? HOW EXACTLY DO YOU GET AN ORCHESTRA TO DO WHAT YOU WANT?
Well, you must understand I do not talk much and I do not joke. Perhaps I talk a little more these days but really very little. The first lesson of conducting class is that you do not speak; you do things with ‘the stick’. I basically agree with this. On the other hand, I do believe that eye contact and arm gestures are important; perhaps even more, you should express the music with every part of your body. You have to strike a balance between all these types of expression. But there is nothing particularly male or female about this; I think conducting is just about you and the music. I certainly do not think that female conductors should try to be more masculine as soon as they get in front of an orchestra.
7. WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE FOR YOUNG FEMALES WHO WISH TO BE CONDUCTORS?
I am a great believer in the idea that, if you have a passion for something – if it is really in your heart -- then go for it. But, practically, you must be very ‘well-equipped’ in a musical sense and have the confidence to be a leader. You should also have something to fall back on if things don’t work out.
8. ARE THERE ANY YOUNG FEMALE CONDUCTORS FROM CHINA THAT YOU ARE WATCHING RIGHT NOW?
One in particular is Xian Zhang. She won the Lorin Maazel Conducting Competition in 2002 and is now Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milan Giuseppe Verdi. She has an extremely bright future and conducts opera very well.
9. YOU HAVE BEEN WITH THE HONG KONG SINFONIETTA FOR 10 YEARS NOW AND YOU HAVE SEEMED TO HAVE FASHIONED A VERY VERSATILE ENSEMBLE THAT OFFERS GREAT VARIETY TO YOUR AUDIENCE. IT CAN PLAY BOTH SMALL AND LARGE WORKS FROM DIFFERENT PERIODS AND EVEN PARTICIPATES IN ‘CROSSOVER’ CONCERTS COMBINING CLASSICAL MUSIC AND OTHER GENRES? WHAT IS YOUR BASIC INSPIRATION?
We are building the orchestra all the time; even in the last weeks, we have added new personnel. It is much improved over the past five years. We have great team spirit in the orchestra and in our artistic organization as a whole. But it is a Hong Kong orchestra and we do want to draw largely on Hong Kong musicians. Fortunately, many Chinese musicians who trained abroad and would have stayed abroad previously, are returning home these days. We are budgeted for 56 players, but we have many ‘extras’ around for larger works, such as a Brahms symphony. Our crossover concerts might involve playing ballet music with actual dancers present. Fun for the audience but also instructive for the orchestra! An orchestra often thinks that they can play ballet music at any tempo -- but they need to see what is actually danceable. I enjoy crossovers involving jazz but I probably draw the line when it comes to rock music. Nonetheless, we have performed in concerts with Canto-pop icon Hacken Lee in front of 10,000 people that served to market classical music more widely to the city. It is always good to have a pop star introducing the instruments of the orchestra!
© Geoffrey Newman 2012