Cross-cultural and intergenerational exchange is the engine that drives cellist Trey Lee’s Musicus Fest, as Thomas May discovered at its eleventh edition


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Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

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Cloud-piercing skyscrapers nestled amid sea, mountains and lush green spaces: Hong Kong is a captivating marvel of stunning yet harmonious contrasts. This densely populated, cosmopolitan metropolis surrounded by the South China Sea is best known as a financial hub and magnet for shoppers and culinary adventurers.

It’s also an environment particularly well suited to Musicus Society’s mission of promoting cross-cultural collaboration. ‘“East meets West” might be a cliché elsewhere, but in Hong Kong, it is literally what happens,’ said cellist Trey Lee, artistic director of the Hong Kong society he co-founded with his sister Chui-Inn Lee in 2010. ‘This may even be the original East-meets-West centre of the world.’

Although he has long been based in Berlin, Lee is also a musical thought leader who maintains tight connections with his native Hong Kong. He resolved to establish Musicus Society as a result of his personal experience studying abroad (initially in the US, subsequently across Europe). ‘One thing that always struck me when I worked with other musicians or won competitions was that nobody was expecting to meet a cellist from Hong Kong,’ Lee explained during my visit. ‘Hong Kong has so many young people studying classical music; I think the world needs to know that the city is not just a business and finance capital.’

Musicus Society operates with an annual budget of approximately HK$10.85m (£1.09m); 39 per cent comes from the local government, while the Hong Kong Jockey Club (a vestige of British colonial days) is also a prominent sponsor. Along with year-round educational initiatives, the society presents Musicus Fest, its flagship celebration of international musical partnerships. The festival, launched in 2013, places a strong emphasis on string players in solo and chamber ensemble configurations and is held annually in late autumn – an especially favourable time to visit Hong Kong. Picture-perfect weather and balmy temperatures accompanied my stay at the end of November.

Musicus Fest offers events catering to various audience types, from youngsters to casual tourists, though the concerts also appeal to different constituencies at the same time. The festival had officially opened the week before I arrived with an interactive family concert (Marco Polo’s Musical Encounter of East and West, on 11 November) juxtaposing Chinese and Western instruments in an imaginary trip to Carnival in Venice; but a nice mix of parents and remarkably well-behaved, attentive children also attended the performances that made up the main part of the festival, together with music students, followers of the ‘arts and culture youth’ movement (young adults who seek out cultural experiences in lieu of social media saturation) and an assortment of local and visiting concertgoers.

‘Hong Kong may be the original East-meets-West centre of the world’ – Trey Lee, cellist

Hong Kong beckons with a cornucopia of readily accessible sites and activities between concerts. Simply navigating the area’s superbly organised modes of public transport was reliably eye-opening, with panoramic glimpses of the endlessly intriguing cityscape from the ferries, close-ups of Hong Kong’s density and architectural variety from the double-decker trams. A breathtakingly steep funicular ascent to Victoria Peak rewarded with views the Olympian gods might envy.

Back at sea level 500m below, the eleventh edition of Musicus Fest highlighted two chamber ensembles: the Musicus Soloists Hong Kong (MSHK) (21 November); and Camerata Salzburg, which made its Musicus Fest debut in two separate programmes (25 and 26 November). Also included was a solo recital by violinist Aaron Chan (24 November), the 2023 winner of the society’s Young Artist Audition.

The three ensemble concerts and the earlier family concert took place in the comfortable, 1,430-seat Concert Hall at Hong Kong City Hall on the north side of Hong Kong Island. A few knowledgeable local music lovers mentioned that its acoustics are superior to those of the main hall in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront across Victoria Harbour. The solo recital took place in the smaller, 463-seat theatre.

Comprising some twenty members, MSHK is a chamber orchestra of young string players originally from Hong Kong who travel from around the world – from leading conservatoires or places where they’ve established a solo career – to convene at Musicus Fest as well as for tours abroad. Lee initiated the group in November 2022, modelling it on such ensembles as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He envisions it as a cultural ambassador for Hong Kong in its appearances beyond the festival; it has already toured to Berlin and Weimar, with a programme inspired by the themes of Bauhaus architecture and philosophy.

Along with cross-cultural exchange, a key objective for Lee is the intergenerational communication of traditions and musical knowledge. He recalls how being able to play next to leading musicians during his own early years allowed his artistry to blossom. When visiting artists just turned up for a concert and then jetted away, on the other hand, it ‘seemed like a missed opportunity’. So he decided to make the contact between guest stars and the young musicians fostered by Musicus Society an integral aspect of Musicus Fest. A salient example in 2023 was the MSHK programme curated by French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. He not only played the solo part in a fascinating arrangement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with string orchestra accompaniment, but also coached the musicians in the other pieces by an array of Nordic composers.


Photo courtesy of Musicus Society

Trey Lee takes a bow following his performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

‘It’s inspiring to have this communication with a new generation,’ Lortie told me after the final rehearsal. ‘They’re very, very different from the older generation.’ Talking about the work he was doing with them, he said, ‘It’s wonderful training for these young people. But it can also be very difficult for them, because there are a lot of things in music that cannot be explained rationally. This is a different way of listening to things.’ The chamber music-like intimacy achieved by the ensemble was particularly admirable both in the unusual Grieg arrangement and in the meaningful pacing of the mystically tinged Fratres of Arvo Pärt in a version for solo violin, strings and percussion (with exquisite contributions from soloist Angela Chan). MSHK members violinist Fan Hiu-sing (Young Artist Audition winner, 2021) and double bassist Victor Lee described the chance to work with like-minded colleagues and eminent mentors as a prime motivation for their participation. Fan Hiu-sing also took the spotlight with violinist Jeremy Hao (Young Artist Audition winner, 2020) in the closing concert – the second of the two programmes featuring Camerata Salzburg – for a rare, gracefully balletic account of Mozart’s Concertone in C major K190.

Trey Lee himself, playing his 1703 ‘Comte de Gabriac’ Gofriller, performed as the soloist in the first Camerata Salzburg concert, balancing intensity and dark rumination in his deeply personal interpretation of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Guest concertmaster Gernot Süssmuth elsewhere guided the conductorless ensemble in dramatically alert accounts of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and, in the final concert, shaped an especially perky Mozart ‘Jupiter’ Symphony.

Süssmuth and several other string playing colleagues from Camerata Salzburg also devoted time to working with Musicus Society’s Ensemble Training students – a cohort of talented school-age musicians which played side by side with the Austrian ensemble in the final piece of the festival, Leó Weiner’s zesty Divertimento no.1. Shifting from formal black to bright scarlet tops, the combined players joined across cultural and generational divides to spark renewed hope in the potential of music to communicate a shared vision.

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