As general manager of the Asian Youth Orchestra, Keith Lau Kwok-hung’s job includes handling the logistics of the troupe, working with donors and designing the tour routes.
But not included in that job description are the absurd situations the 41-year-old needs to solve every year when the orchestra goes on the road.
Lau has argued with immigration officers who won’t allow student entry, dealt with unreliable local venues, and prayed to Mother Nature for a hassle-free travel plan. He has struggled with these problems for close to two decades.
“Something unexpected always pops up,” says Lau, as he recalls the frustration he faces each year. “There have been a lot of unbelievable stories.”
Although Lau has never left a performer behind in his 16 years on the job, he admits that it has almost happened. “Last year, due to the tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines because of the shooting [of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine coastguards], Taiwanese officials did not give our Filipino students permits to perform,” says Lau.
“The problem was solved just before we arrived in Taipei. We were planning alternatives in case the kids couldn’t get there. It was really absurd. Some of our members were just children.”
In a more extreme example, due to a miscommunication, the orchestra almost left most of its string section behind in 2012, when the mainland performers – who make up a large portion of the orchestra – lacked an entry requirement for Taiwan.
Richard Pontzious – the orchestra’s founder – jumped in with Lau to negotiate with the immigration officers as the 25 mainland musicians waited anxiously to hear the results, and the crisis was averted an hour before the plane took off.
The orchestra is performing on the mainland before playing at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this weekend.
Running a touring orchestra that changes all of its members each year is a daunting task. Lau works quietly in the background to ensure the complex machinery that runs the tour is well oiled. Instruments are the lifeline of any musician or musical group; broken and missing instruments have been a huge headache for Lau. More often than not, a venue will have a badly tuned piano or broken timpani. “As a travelling orchestra, we depend on the venues to provide the large instruments,” says Lau. In one of the more disastrous cases, the orchestra nearly had to perform without any double basses.
“One time in China, we had to borrow eight double basses which had been in storage. As they were brought out, we noticed that all of them were missing strings, and were very dusty,” Lau says with disgust. “It seemed like they had never been used before.”
Luckily, the orchestra’s travelling double bass instructor managed to whip all eight instruments into shape before rehearsals began.
Such troubles have become a tradition for Lau, who says that if the problems were to suddenly disappear, something would certainly be going wrong. It’s a matter of doing good preparation and working towards an answer: “There’s always an alternative, a solution.”
Lau says that mishaps usually occur at smaller venues. Once, he says on the orchestra’s events page, he asked the players whether they thought it was worth doing such small performances, considering all the trouble such venues cause.
“I feel so proud that everyone agreed it was one of their missions to educate and expose people to good music,” wrote Lau. “The opportunity to hear a full symphony orchestra in some cities in China is rare.”
Founded in 1990 as this region’s counterpart to European youth ensembles, the orchestra accepts about 100 musicians in their mid-teens to mid-20s each year, following auditions in their home countries. It has performed with world-renowned musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, played at some of the world’s great venues, and received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists in 2010.
Why has he put up with all the problems for 16 years? “I’m probably still here because I can’t find another job,” he says, laughing. Joke aside, the answer is that Lau enjoys putting young musicians on stage.
“We have to raise money and call auditions, but, ultimately, we get to put these kids on stage,” says Lau, “I really enjoy it. It is stressful, but real friendships are born. At the end of the season, everyone is crying. No one wants to get on the bus to the airport.”
Quite a few of its alumni remain in contact with the orchestra long after leaving. Earlier this year, 27 past members got together in Hong Kong to celebrate Pontzious’ 70th birthday.
Former players often describe their experience with the orchestra as incredible. Lau says that for many, it is their first experience playing with an orchestra. The performers build connections, trade techniques and make life-long friendships. Harty Tam, a freelance musician for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, describes it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Playing concerts in these venues as a young person was unbelievable,” says Tam.