September 13, 2009, Sunday Morning Post
Andrew Simon is ebullient, Warren Lee is reserved. Yet the duo embody the solidarity and breadth of local classical music talent, writes Sam Olluver.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department could not have picked two more dissimilar musicians for its Our Music, Our Talents series spotlighting the city's resident stars. On September 21, clarinettist Andrew Simon and pianist Warren Lee Wai-on will share the City Hall stage in a recital featuring works by Brahms, Schumann and Poulenc.
"Our cultural backgrounds are so different," says Lee. "Sometimes I wonder why we get along so well on a personal as well as a musical level."
One reason seems to stem from the maxim that opposites attract. Outwardly reserved and measuring every word, the 32-year-old Lee recalls apearing at the Hong Kong Coliseum as part of a pop concert when he was only six years old, playing a solo spot accompanied by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra before 12,000 people. His teacher subsequently shunned promotional offers to protect his ego, a decision that Lee describes as "the best".
"She was probably worried that he'd turn into me," jokes Simon, who has retained his loquacious New Yorker boom throughout a 21-year stint as the Hong Kong Phil's principal clarinettist. Appointing a 25-year-old to such a position is rare, but it reflects Simon's determination while a student to become a top professional.
"Today I have a lot of outside interests, but I was a conservatory brat," he says. "I'm a Juilliard nerd; I was close-minded, the guy who said this is what I do and don't bother me with anything else."
Lee was not so single-minded. He fast-tracked through secondary school in Britain en route for his bachelor's degree at London's Royal Academy of Music, taking time out to sandwich a master's degree at Yale University in the middle. Towards the end of these piano studies, his head began to turn.
"I was going to study law after the Royal Academy. In 2000, I applied to 14 law schools in the UK, the US and Canada and even paid the deposits to a couple of them," he says.
Fate had different plans when that same year, he returned to Hong Kong with a friend - the brother of Canto-pop star Kelly Chan Wai-lam - who encouraged him to "write a few tunes". Lee surprised himself, however, by ending up interfacing with school students as artist in residence for the Yew Chung Education Foundation.
He now splits his career between performance and education, yet still found time recently to secure an MBA from a local university.
"That was one of the best decisions I've made," Lee says. "I need more than just practising eight hours a day to keep me going."
Simon's passion outside music is for sport. "I am a unbelievably, dangerously fanatical tennis fan," he says. "It's not normal."
A US$2,000 donation to charity recently served him the opportunity to both lunch and play at his local tennis club with Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion.
"That sort of thing never happened to me in New York," he enthuses, adding it to a list of reasons why he has chosen to continue living in Hong Kong.
Becoming the fist American musician to perform in North Korea in 1992 is another, brought about by a neighbour's chance meeting with the country's minister of culture on a train. The neighbour asked him why the annual April 15th Arts Festival commemorating Kim Il-sung, the country's late leader, never included American artists. "We'd love to have an American," the minister replied, "but we don't know any - do you?"
The rest "was literally history", says Simon. "The next thing I'm in the State Department in Washington DC getting debriefed and showing videos [of the visit]. And that's because I happened to live in Hong Kong. Waiting on tables in San Francisco wouldn't have afforded me that opportunity."
Forever obsessed with brands and big names, this city has had its fair share of visiting top-flight classical musicians. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, the Alban Berg Quartet and pianist Emmanuel Ax in the past as well as Vladimir Askenazy and the Sydney Symphony and cello and piano duo Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott in the coming months.
However, part of the rationale behind the Our Music Talents series, launched last November, is to remind Hong Kong people of the quality of home-grown talent.
While visiting artists can give local audiences a quick shot of adrenalin, Simon and Lee say they can leave them with a more permanent legacy. Simon believes he has been influential in raising the quality of clarinet performances here which has led to more Hong Kong players reaching the finals of competitions abroad.
"Almost all the teachers here are my students or grand-students, if you will," he says. "I've installed a style of playing or a style of teaching, an actual brand of how people play the clarinet in Hong Kong."
Lee wants to influence the other side of the footlights. "There are record numbers of students going to sit music examinations and competitions," he says, "but there are not record-setting numbers of new audiences. There's a huge gap that educators have to do something about. I think that's what sort of keeps me here and keeps me going."
Having both won high-profile music competitions and performed around the world, the two musicians are piqued by the overseas-versus-local demarcation that routinely pops up in the Hong Kong mindset.
Simon relates how the HKPO's principal cellist agreed earlier this year to replace an indisposed soloist in a performance with the orchestra of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The substitution was met by a fickle response from patrons who were quick to denounce what they considered an unequal replacement for the price of their ticket.
"To the whole scenario's credit," says Simon, "the same people wrote in and not only said it was so good, [but also] why did you invite the other guy to begin with when you have such good local talent?"
The duo also asked David Gwilt, emeritus professor of music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to write a new piece for the recital, a five-minute work entitled March and Dance.
Simon and Lee have lost count of the number of times they have performed together over the past nine years, but it's a pairing that's likely to last.
"As a pianist, you're always treated as an accompanist," says Lee. "But I'm never an accompanist to the great Andy Simon; it's always as a collaborator. That's what's so great about this partnership."