Filipino conductor Gerard Salonga is off to a good start as one of the newly appointed assistant conductors with a series of special concerts dubbed the Swire Denim Series, which opened on May 14 at the Hong Kong Cultural Center.
This was just after the orchestra’s well-received Asian tour under its present music director Jaap Van Zweden who will soon take over the New York Philharmonic in its 2018 season.
The May 14 family concert featured Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival Of The Animals.
To be sure, the varied musical fares for assorted audiences have contributed to a more informed audience in Hong Kong.
Says Salonga, “It really helps that the orchestras here, including the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong really make education a big part of their annual activities.”
By now, he has gotten used to the sight of kids in the audience who he feels can benefit a lot from this music exposure. “I’ve done it lots of times in Manila, and I think it’s all about one’s expectations. You know before going in there that there’ll be kids, so you really don’t expect the same audience as, say, an evening of Brahms.”
On the other hand, he absorbed a lot of insights during the recently concluded Asian tour.
His job while the orchestra is on tour remains the same as when the orchestra is not, which is that of an understudy and assistant. “I’m the extra pair of ears in the audience during rehearsals, listing down any problems that I hear, and bringing whatever I find to Maestro van Zweden during the break. Many times, I found myself crossing items off my list because he’s so good at hearing problems and fixing them. Sometimes if he’s doing a play-through (i.e. no stopping) he’ll signal to me to mark a section that he can go back to later. When there’s a soloist, he’ll ask me about balance, and I’ll go to different parts of the hall so I can give him better information. Musicians will often come to me asking for feedback on different issues, note checks, etc. As an example, off-stage trumpets in the first movement of Mahler 1 can pose a few problems, so principal trumpet Joshua MacCluer will sometimes ask how things sound. We played in three unfamiliar halls (Hamer Hall in Melbourne, the Esplanade in Singapore, and the Sydney Opera House), with only a short rehearsal in each one to get used to the acoustics. So, we all had to have our ears at full power. Lastly, I also have to be ready at any time to conduct the pieces myself in case Jaap (or whoever is the main conductor that week) has to miss a rehearsal or performance.”
The orchestra had two big programs in Hong Kong before it left town which are Mahler6 and Shostakovich 8, including a world premiere of Conrad Tao’s new work including a Beethoven Triple Concerto all in a span of seven days including rehearsals.
He recalls that hectic week thus: “The day after the Shostakovich, we rehearsed the Mahler 1 for the tour. That means I got to see him go through a lot of pieces in a short time. It’s his sheer commitment that really got to me. He works so hard, and has tremendous amounts of energy. The pedal is floored from the start of the rehearsal all the way to the end of the concert. He believes that an artist must strive for freedom in a performance, and this freedom cannot be given by anyone - it has to be earned through nothing less than rigorous preparation. I am also learning a lot of musical things from him, particularly how good things have to actually be in order to be ‘good’, and how that sound is achieved. He believes that a musician carries a sound around with them inside, and that even an orchestra can take a good acoustic along with it wherever it goes. Working with him has raised my awareness tremendously. He can take a very good orchestra, and bring them to an even higher level of performance. He’s intense, but very effective. I learned a lot about problem solving, and rehearsal strategy.”
The young conductor started with popular music and musicals in 1996 but turned to classical music in 2008.
“It’s been very rewarding artistically, and the time can be best described as one of continuous learning, trial and error, and stretching one’s abilities.”
Moreover, he remains music director of the ABS CBN Philharmonic, which allowed him to have the Hong Kong Philharmonic position as well as take other conducting engagements locally and abroad. “The orchestra is operated somewhat differently from the usual TV talents, and I’m very thankful to them for making the effort to understand the life and work of a musician.”
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