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Off and Away - East Goes West

By Philippe Broad

PARIS, 13 AUGUST 1998 - One hundred and three of Asia's most talented young students of western classical music have come together as the Asian Youth Orchestra for a tour of Europe's festivals this summer.

Ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-five years and drawn from ten countries, many of the young musicians are away from home for the first time. "This is the most exciting experience of my life," said Hsieh Chia Ching, a female cellist from Taiwan during a half-day stopover in Paris between San Sebastian, Spain and Amsterdam. "We are studying western music but have no means of acquiring a greater cultural understanding of this music through living in a western environment. This should be a beginning."

Asian Youth Orchestra

The six-week, thirteen city, European tour which started in mid-July in Sion, Switzerland includes prestigious venues such as Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Dresden's Lukaskirche and the Berlin Konzerthaus, ending with the Musicali di Merano festival in Italy. (See Concert Calendar for dates). There will also be a radio broadcast with WDR3 in Cologne.

Started nine years ago, the AYO is the brain-child of U.S. citizen Richard Pontzious, who has been resident in Asian countries for more than 30 years.

Although there is a growing interest for western classical music in Asia - as bourne out by the ever-increasing sales of classical CDs - Pontzious claims that there are very few western-style orchestras that live up to the name. "In some cases there isn't the political will, and in most the problem is financial as well. Western classical music simply is not a priority for a lot of these developing countries."

Apart from Asian "stars" who have a world-class career, there are insufficient musicians of Asian origin to man professional orchestras in major Asian cities. In Hong Kong's top orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Asians are still the minority.

By uniting young musicians from all over Asia once a year, Pontzious hopes, over time, to develop the interest for playing western music in the different countries and to enrich the existing talent base. A significant part of the experience has been to overcome long-standing cultural rivalries between different national groups, and to create personal bonding between musicians across Asia. "Don't think it's like bringing together a group of musicians from different European countries," says Pontzious. "Asia is much more complicated. For the second year running now, we have had the good fortune to include musicians from Vietnam. Before they started, I had to tell them that they would have to be twice as good as the others to be accepted as equals! It worked."

A large part of Pontzious' year is taken up touring Asian capitals for the gruelling auditions of some 1,500 to 2,000 students. Once the final selections are made, successful candidates are sent copies of the next season's musical programme to prepare.

Asian Youth Orchestra

After months of bureaucratic negotiations to obtain exit and entry visas, the AYO comes together to live its bright, intense existence of six weeks. The first two are spent in rehearsal camp - this year at Sion in French-speaking Switzerland - with faculty members and first-chair players of prominent musical institutions such as the Julliard School, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brussels' Monnaie Opera among others. Then, the orchestra leaves on tour to gain the experience of public performance.

Pontzious claims that during its brief, annual existence, the orchestra is one of the finest in Asia, and certainly there has been no lack of western or Asian star soloists ready to play with it, including cellists Yo-Yo Ma, and Mischa Maisky or pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Leon Fleisher, among others.

Roumanian conductor Sergiu Comissiona, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony for seventeen years and currently head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Orquesta Sinfonica de R.T.V.E. in Madrid, returns for his fifth tour with the AYO this summer and since last year as principal conductor and music director.

The existence of AYO, not to mention the ambitious tours made each year, would not be possible without the 1.5 million dollars in sponsorship from corporate and private sources. Additional gifts take the form of airline tickets, hotel accomodation, annual grants for individual students or the purchase of the instrument they would play once beyond the walls of their local conservatory. But the interest goes beyond the sphere of Asia. The rather special welcome given to the AYO by the festivals where they will play shows that in Europe, too, there is an interest in developing a taste for western music in the Far East.

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