Macao’s appreciation for classical music has come a long way since the 1990s. Violinist Jimson Hoi Kin Wa says that just a few decades ago, the only instruments city residents could easily identify were the violin and piano. But then Hoi and his colleagues at the Macao Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO) set out to grow classical music from the ground up.
In 1997, they established the MYSO – which focuses mainly on classical music but also sometimes contemporary and original compositions – aiming to educate the youth of Macao. Hoi has been its president since the beginning. “At that time, there was nothing in Macao, so we tried to build something [for the youth] … we wanted them to be interested [in music],” he says.
Today, that goal has been achieved. As the group celebrates its 25th anniversary, it boasts over 200 students and more than a dozen conductors. More than 80 of the MYSO’s students have also been accepted into well-known conservatories or music schools around the world. Now, Hoi aims to continue to grow the MYSO community into something more than a training ground for classical musicians.
Getting in sync
Born in Guangdong in 1962, Hoi and his family migrated to Macao in the late 1970s, when he began to study music at St Pius X Music Academy. At the age of 19, he became the youngest member of the Macao Chamber Orchestra when it was established in 1983, and he would continue to play in the orchestra – known as the Macao Orchestra since 2001 – for the group’s first 13 music seasons.
In the early 1990s, he joined the arts management undergraduate course at the University of Hong Kong.
In his first two years with the Macao Chamber Orchestra, Hoi was twice selected to represent Macao at the annual Hong Kong Youth Music Camp, a classical music event organised every summer by Hong Kong’s Music Office that allows young musicians to receive training from established musicians and instructors. When Hoi looks back, this youth music camp was what sparked the idea to start the MYSO.
In 1995, Hoi left the Macao Chamber Orchestra to focus on teaching classical music at local schools. After about two years of teaching, he and a colleague, Wong Ka – who is now the Macao Orchestra’s marketing manager – came up with an idea to organise a student orchestra. In its concept, they drew on the training practises Hoi learned at the Hong Kong Youth Music Camp.
They shared the idea with another colleague, Leung Kin Hang – then a conductor of the Macau Police Band and the head of the Macau Band Directors Association, and now an MYSO conductor – as well as with head of Pui Ching Middle School. The school agreed to allow the newly formed MYSO to rehearse at the school’s facilities.
In the beginning, Hoi recalls, “We were simple. We didn’t think about the money, we didn’t think about the time.” The group only had several dozen students enrolled from Pui Ching Middle School and Sacred Heart Canossian College, Macau. They even offered the students to learn for free, says Hoi, all with the mission of enhancing musical education in Macao. Now, the orchestra is made up of primary and secondary students who learn about more than just music.
Every year since the MYSO was founded, the orchestra puts on one symphony concert and about two to three other performances in Macao, involving more than 600 students combined. Hoi says the students learn a lot from playing in these events: how to cooperate, how to listen to others, how to lead and how to obey leadership, too.
“In the orchestra, if I play the melody, then my instrument’s sound will be leading, and the others will be in harmony to accompany the melody. And if the melody switches to another instrument, then I change to be part of the harmony, not the melody. So, I have to listen to [other] people,” says Hoi. “This is not only for music. When you are in school or working in the community”, one must know what one’s role is, he stresses.
A globe-spanning musical journey
Since its inception, the local youth orchestra has given over 800 performances, about 90 per cent of them performed locally. Apart from local concerts, the MYSO has also gone abroad for 12 concert tours, dating back to their first international tours in Australia and Singapore in 2007. They have continued to visit many other places every year. They have performed in Austria, France, Japan, Thailand and the United States, as well as different cities across the mainland and several top music festivals, including the Lisbon International Youth Music Festival, Italy’s Musica Riva Festival and the Young Euro Classic in Berlin, Germany.
They performed at all three in 2010. The same year, they performed with the Prague Philharmonia in the Czech Republic, and with the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra back home for Macao’s New Year Concert. The MYSO has also collaborated with the National Youth Orchestra of Germany, the Australian Youth Orchestra, Belgium’s Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra. “Our [students] are not professional music students; it was such an encouragement for them to play with professional musicians,” says Hoi with pride.
Present challenges, promising future
Since 2020, the MYSO has not been able to continue their tours overseas. Their financial support – from various sectors, including the government – has decreased during the pandemic, forcing the group to reallocate budget for musical training and operational costs (the MYSO is based in the Wa Long Industrial Building near the Red Market).
“In Macao, people are not used to being [financial] donors, even the sponsors from the business sector,” Hoi says, adding that he believes it is important to support Macao’s art and culture.
Despite lacking steady financial support, the orchestra has managed to attract and develop tremendous young talent, such as Edward Chio and Kelly Chan.
Two of the most promising stars in the programme, Chio, a Form 6 student at Yuet Wah College, and Chan, a Form 4 student at Sacred Heart Canossian College, are the MYSO’s principal cello and bassoon players, respectively.
Chio joined MYSO in 2016 but his cello training began much earlier, when he joined the Macao Conservatory at the age of six. His mum, Cheong Wai Nei, a music teacher at St Paul’s School, initially taught him to play the piano, but when he heard the cello for the first time, he was hooked. “It sounded warm and beautiful,” he recalls.
“Classical music always brings me calmness, different to other types of music. It’s like a language without words. The composers tell their stories through music and the players, and the audience must be very concentrated to understand and notice the details in the music,” says Chio, whose 11-year-old brother also plays trumpet with MYSO, while his nearly four-year-old sister has started to learn the piano at home.
After finishing secondary school, he plans to study music in Austria, majoring in his original instrument, the piano, while opting for a minor in the cello. “In the future, I wish to be part of a symphony orchestra in Europe,” he declares. But someday, he adds, he would like to return and teach music in Macao and make classical music more popular in his hometown.
Chan also dreams of being in a symphony or becoming a music teacher. She plans to continue her classical music studies in the United Kingdom. “There are so many teachers and musicians who study classical music there,” says Chan, who started playing the piano at age four and picked up the bassoon when she was about nine years old at the urging of a schoolteacher. “The sound of bassoon is very attractive. It’s like an old man [with a deep voice] telling a story,” she explains.
That instrument has helped her to discover an even deeper love for music since she joined the MYSO in 2019. “I love the feeling of playing music with other people. And having so many different instruments joined together, making sound at the same time, I think it’s very grand.”
The musical dedication shown by Chio and Chan are exactly the reasons why the MYSO remains committed to training Macao’s young classical musicians and creating a higher standard for the city’s symphony orchestras.
Hoi hopes that the students who train with the MYSO will someday carry the torch for him in Macao as well. “This is your home. Come back to Macao to develop your music career here, to have your music life here,” he says.