To mark its 30th anniversary, Hong Kong Cultural Centre (HKCC) will host three concerts with Sir Simon Rattle and London Symphony Orchestra. Andrew Anderson speaks to Colleen Lee and Aristo Sham, two Hong Kong pianists who have been picked to perform with the elite ensemble
“The cultural centre was one of my main motivations when I was younger, and it inspired me to work hard and pursue this dream”
When you walk along the waterfront of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour there is one building that stands out: Hong Kong Cultural Centre (HKCC). While almost every other structure stretches up to the sky, creating a glinting wall of glass windows, HKCC is instead a striking smooth curve. At first sight its structure is origami-like in form, a stark brick-by-brick pause in the otherwise busy and bustling metropolis.
HKCC has become an epicentre for the city, a place where its main ensembles – Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO), Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO), Hong Kong Ballet and experimental theatre company Zuni Icosahedron – all have a home. Part of the city’s independent identity, HKCC is celebrating its 30th year with a star-studded programme.
“I remember first going to HKCC almost 30 years ago to hear a piano recital by Sviatoslav Richter, I was so fascinated by his performance and sitting in such a beautiful hall had a profound effect on me”
To mark the milestone, Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD, the organisation responsible for running the venue and many festivals) has joined forces with London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) to put together a special programme of three concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Taking place on 22, 24 and 25 September, LSO will team up with American pianist Emanuel Ax as well as two home-grown talents, pianists Colleen Lee and Aristo Sham.
“I remember first going to HKCC almost 30 years ago to hear a piano recital by Sviatoslav Richter,” recalls Lee. “I was so fascinated by his performance and sitting in such a beautiful hall had a profound effect on me. From that time on I was thinking ‘one day I want to perform in this venue’. The cultural centre was one of my main motivations when I was younger, and it inspired me to work hard and pursue this dream.”
Now a concert pianist and educator, Lee’s chance came when she was 18, performing a concerto at one of the city’s summer festivals. “It was a dream come true,” she reflects. “Ever since, I’ve always wanted to play there whenever I can.”
Sham, for his part, first played at the hall when he was just 10 years old in a performance with HKPO. What was that experience like?
“It was a steep learning curve,” he answers. “But I remember it also being a lot of fun. I loved playing with the orchestra and sharing the stage with musicians who then later become your musical friends and partners.”
He continues: “I’ve been going to HKCC since I was very young, attending HKPO performances, visiting orchestras and recitals from overseas artists. The centre was a huge part of my musical social life. I attended so many concerts and learnt so much from them. My experiences at HKCC really informed me about what music could be.”
“I’m really glad they chose the Rachmaninov piece – it’s a magnificent concerto with beautiful virtuosic parts, but also deeply moving in other places. It’s one of the best pieces to showcase what I am like as an artist.”
Needless to say, both Lee and Sham were excited when, out of the blue, they received a call saying they were being considered for the HKCC anniversary concert. After a few weeks of suspense, the booking was confirmed, with both asked to submit a list of concerti to Rattle. The conductor took his pick, with Lee set to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, while Sham will take on the equally tricky Piano Concerto No 3 by Rachmaninov.
“I’m really glad they chose the Rachmaninov piece – it was the one I really wanted to play,” enthuses Sham. “I first learnt the piece when I was studying at Harrow School in England for my final concert there. It’s a magnificent concerto with beautiful virtuosic parts, but also deeply moving in other places. It’s one of the best pieces to showcase what I am like as an artist; I like to bring some thoughtful intelligence into my interpretations; the cerebral part of a performance is very important to me.”
As for Lee, she emphasises the emotional and poetic qualities of her piece, as well as its technical challenges: “I remember the first time I heard it when I was a child. I had a special feeling about this concerto: it’s very exciting but at the same time everything is so clear…it really combines lots of brilliance, lyricism, humour and excitement.
“You’ve got to have enough energy and stamina because it is always changing, and its character changes very quickly. At one point you may be playing a very quiet passage, but then the next second you have to play a lot of running notes or very strong chords. It’s very challenging, but I love this piece very much.”
While Ax and Rattle are the superstar names on the bill, both Lee and Sham have plenty of lineage when it comes to the piano. Lee is a laureate of the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition, as well as a teacher at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and has co-created interdisciplinary shows like Magic Piano and Chopin Shorts for Hong Kong Arts Festival. Sham, meanwhile, has won numerous competitions – most recently the inaugural Charles Wadsworth Piano Competition – and is currently part of the exclusive Young Concert Artists (YCA) roster in the US.
“I stumbled across YCA almost by accident,” says Sham. “I was fortunate to win the Charles Wadsworth prize, and he is the husband of YCA president Sue Wadsworth. So, I was entered into the YCA auditions at the semi-final stage and was lucky enough to make it in.”
“They’ve been great at guiding me in what to do with my career. They are very flexible and let me choose the concerts I want to play and help me put together programmes that I like. I am also commissioning a new piece from the YCA composer-in-residence Saad Haddad next season.”
“I am very happy that Aristo Sham and I will both be playing with the LSO. I’ve watched his career from a young age – he’s a fantastic artist and a very interesting person”
Lee is also busy right now, working on a new dance piece with Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company.
“I am playing two works in a new performance we’ve worked on together,” she explains. “One is an extract from Schubert’s Die Winterreise, while the other comes from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We’ll take this show to Beijing in July.
“After that, 2020 is going to be very busy with lots of Beethoven to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. I’ll be playing two of his concertos with Hong Kong Sinfonietta and there are lots of other Beethoven projects in my schedule.”
Concludes Lee: “I am very happy that Aristo Sham and I will both be playing with the LSO. I’ve watched his career from a young age – he’s a fantastic artist and a very interesting person. Also, both of us studied with the same teacher, professor Eleanor Wong, so we have a debt of gratitude to her. It’s a testament to her brilliant teaching that she has two students taking part in this very important series of concerts. I am sure we’ll both enjoy expressing ourselves with this wonderful orchestra and conductor.”
Sir Simon Rattle and London Symphony Orchestra will perform with Colleen Lee (22 September), Aristo Sham (24 September) and Emanuel Ax (25 September) at Hong Kong Cultural Centre.