Cover Hong Kong conductor Lio Kuokman. Photo by Ricky Lo. Wardrobe by Joyce.

Award-winning Hong Kong conductor Lio Kuokman says blending Canto-pop with classical orchestra music unlocks new possibilities for the Hong Kong music scene.

"I had no idea what an orchestra was when my mother brought me to a concert when I was four,” says Lio Kuokman, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s resident conductor. “I was intrigued by this man who came out looking like a penguin with a white stick in his hand. As he flicked his stick, I felt that the musicians were following his command, and sounds were coming out from different parts of the stage. I turned to my mother and said, ‘I want to be the guy with the chopstick’.”

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Little did he know how far that dream of picking up the “chopstick” would take him. Proving to be a natural musician, Lio graduated from The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2004 with first class honours, majoring in piano performance, then went on to study in the US at Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, and the Curtis Institute of Music, a private conservatory which accepts only about 30 of the 600 students that apply each year. He has conducted both the Philadelphia Orchestra, to which he was appointed assistant conductor at the age of 33, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He also knows how to play the harpsichord, trombone and violin.

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Now he’s back on home turf, the Macau-born, Hong Kong raised conductor’s ambitions are far greater than simply delivering great classical concerts: he wants to enlighten audiences as to music’s cross-cultural possibilities. His early February concert with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2022, cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions, was to have been an orchestral celebration of Canto-pop. (The fate of his programme of Strauss and Beethoven with live projection of art and photography by Tobias Melle is still pending.)

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If this latter sounds like an unlikely combination, it’s important to understand Lio’s rationale: the two genres are not that far removed from each other. “Mozart and Beethoven were the popular music back then,” he explains. “To me, there’s only good and bad music. If the music is good, it speaks to you.”

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This wouldn't have been the first time the Hong Kong Phil has played Canto-pop; the orchestra has collaborated frequently in the past with local stars such as Hins Cheung, Justin, Anthony Lun and Jacky Cheung. Rather than work with established names, Lio’s concert would have featured Gigi Yim, Windy Zhan and Archie Sin from TVB’s reality singing contest Stars Academy. And while previously the pop stars in such shows would perform their own songs, Lio and these new artists would have taken on classics by Canto-pop legends including Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Alan Tam, Faye Wong and Eason Chan. “Johnny and I selected the pieces which are meaningful to us and locals. Their songs gave us so many memories with which we grew up,” Lio says, referring to Johnny Yim, the Stars Academy music producer and Canto-pop composer who arranged the music for the show and would have appeared as a pianist. “For me, this concert is us paying homage to Hong Kong’s legendary pop singers.”

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While the typical Canto-pop concert can be an explosion of sound, Lio explains that the drums and electronic music would have been replaced by piano and orchestral instruments, which would have blended harmoniously with Yim, Zhan and Sin’s parts as they sing the lyrics and melodies.

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“I want to bring out the sound of the orchestra. It’ll be a very interesting mix,” Lio says. “As a conductor, I always try to find a way to bridge the gap of the two different musical genres.”

Lio’s Canto-pop concert would have been only the start of his musical education work in Hong Kong. “This year, I have plans to bring music programmes to schools, hospitals and correctional institutions. The audience don’t have to become professional musicians. The point is to inspire them to work hard on what they love to do. Music is for the soul,” he says. “I want to bring music to people who don’t have the chance to listen to classical music, and use music to connect people.”

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