Digital vistas

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has fully embraced digital technology in order to reach new audiences. PAY speaks to executive director Celina Chin.

For the usually busy, built up streets of Hong Kong, the closures and cancellations of the last two years were particularly strange. In a city that never sleeps, which is crammed full of commerce and culture, the idea of stopping and locking down just didn’t feel right. 

But while the streets might not have been so bustling, behind the scenes there was a lot going on. People were finding new ways to keep the arts going. They were rediscovering themselves and reinventing their practice. And perhaps no other arts organisation better represents this spirit than Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Because, over the last 24 months, the orchestra has come up with a string of new ideas for bringing classical Chinese music to the masses. 

“The pandemic has changed how we do things in many ways,” explains HKCO executive director Celina Chin. “Like so many orchestras, we increased our activities on social media platforms last year. While online concerts and music videos were initially developed as ad hoc measures in response to venue closer, they have proven to be effective in opening up new performance formats and broadening HKCO’s audience reach.

“But our work went far beyond just online content,” she continues. “We’ve really embraced all the possibilities that digital can offer – probably faster than we would have done if it was not for the pandemic. And now these new ideas are having an impact on our audience not only here in Hong Kong but also internationally.

“As the great Chinese poet Lu You said, “When all paths on the mountain seem to have come to a dead end, explore and you will find a vista opening up”. We have really embraced these wise words and this spirit. We want to create impactful programmes that last beyond the pandemic and become part of our musical culture.” 

Let’s start then with the first major development, which was the creation of a 5G concert series. The first, titled ‘5G. Syncs with the Power of Drums’, saw the HKCO broadcasting an outdoor concert directly to 5G-ready mobile phones.  

“The event – which we created with the mobile phone network 3 Hong Kong – reached a much larger audience than would have been in a brick and mortar concert hall,” enthuses Chin. “Riding on this successful experience, HKCO will continue its partnership with 3 Hong Kong to deliver more live streamed concerts in the future.” 

Taking content direct to phones is clearly the future for content of all kinds, particularly in markets like Hong Kong where maybe people have 5G phones capable of livestreaming high-quality audio and video content. But, of course, many classical music fans still don’t have 5G phones. So for those consumers, HKCO is created a digital concert hall that launched in late 2021. 

“The HKCO Net Concert Hall is another effort to boost our online presence,” says Chin. “It’s a model that has already been tried elsewhere – for example, by the Berlin Philharmonic – but we’re the first Chinese orchestra to do this. Available on YouTube and Facebook, the HKCO Net Concert Hall features a broad selection of complete concerts and individual performances. We have since made this playlist on YouTube a regular fixture and will continue to upload performances there so that Chinese music lovers can easily find and enjoy them. 

“We believe that more people from around the world will access our music thanks to this platform…and we’re already seeing statistics that back this up. It’s also a useful research resource for academics and composers who are studying the Chinese classics.” 

As Chin notes, virtual concert halls have been tried elsewhere with great success. However, HKCO’s next adventure is breaking entirely new ground: an augmented reality season brochure. 

“We have incorporated AR in our season brochure, which will encourage younger generations to learn more about HKCO and Chinese music,” says the executive director. “When you view the brochure through an app called SnapPop, enhanced content appears on many of the pages. For example, if you’re reading one of the pages about a particular Chinese instrument, a 3D music instrument will pop up and play music so you know what the instrument sounds like.  Or when you scan the page with message from artistic director, Maestro Yan, he actually appears as a 3D image and reads his message directly to you.

“We actually held a launch event for this AR technology at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre where people could experience these AR effects. The feedback we got was extremely positive, and we’re actually one of the first arts organisations in the world to incorporate this technology into a season brochure.” 

Speaking of the current season – the orchestra’s 45th – HKCO will present 30 concerts in a diverse range of formats. 


“We have three new programmes as part of the ‘One Hundred Chinese Music Classics Select’ series,” says Chin. “We are also working on a new series to salute giants of Chinese music. We’re calling it ‘Timeless Classics – A Tribute to Maestro Peng Xiuwen’, and we’ll debut with a retrospective concert for this highly revered composer-conductor who played a pivotal role in the early development of orchestral music in China.

“We’ve also planned a series of 15-minute music programmes,” she continues. “For the coming season, we have selected ‘24 Solar Terms’ that will be featured as videos during our regular concerts.” 

Listed as one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage practices, 24 Solar Terms is a knowledge system developed in ancient China which categorises different times of a year according to the sun’s motion. The mini video concerts will take this system as their start point. 

“24 Solar Terms has a lot to say about living a nourishing lifestyle by eating foods and engaging in physical activities that are suitable for each season, and in the many festivities celebrated at different times of the year,” says Chin. “We’re really looking forward to creating a music rendition of this fascinating ancient system on the harmonious integration of time, nature and man.

Continues Chin: “And of course, the Hong Kong Drum Festival is entered its 19th year. We featured two young local drum groups: the Refiner Drums and Gekko.  And we premiered a piece with jazz drumming and an oue eco-gehu – which is a bass instrument like Cello – as alongside the orchestra. It was a really amazing experience for everyone involved.” 

As for touring, Chin is hopeful that audiences all over the world will soon be able to see HKCO again – and not just on digital stages: “With vaccination becoming prevalent and international travel restrictions easing, HKCO targets to resume regular tours for Fall 2022. Performances have already been confirmed for Singapore, Japan and Mainland China, and we are working on the resuming of our Europe tour originally planned for 2022. We really hope to see all our loyal fans soon, along with the many new friends we have made during this difficult time.”