Perfect Harmony

HKFO Chairman and Music Director Sean Li in 2020

Barrister Sean Li pursues his passion for music as conductor of the Hong Kong Festival Orchestra, which he founded.

What do you do, as an up-and-coming musician in order to find opportunities to perform in Hong Kong, while juggling the arduous training required to become a barrister? Forming your own orchestra and conducting it is one option.

Founded by barrister Sean Li in 2009, the Hong Kong Festival Orchestra (HKFO) provides musicians with just that opportunity. Li also serves as Chairman and Music Director of HKFO as well as conducting throughout the 11 years of the orchestra’s existence. This is in addition to his day job as legal counsel (litigation) for Hong Kong’s Competition Commission, where he started in February 2019. 

“With only around 30 employed barristers in the whole of Hong Kong, you can say we are a rare breed,” Li said of his work with the Commission.

Growing up in the 1980s, Li’s parents dutifully followed the tradition of sending their progeny to learn a musical instrument, the violin in his case. Li began lessons at the age of six but admits that he did not enjoy them at the time because of the lesson’s focus on grade exams and competitions.

It was only when he headed to London to study at Harrow School that Li really picked up an interest in his violin. The key difference for the then-teenager was that the school, famous for its roster of famous alumni that includes former U.K. prime ministers Winston Churchill and Robert Peel, gave him more opportunities to perform. What started as three to four performances per semester quickly progressed up to three to four per week. 

“I believe grades and competitions should not be the end goal of music. I believe music is really about sharing the piece with the audience and, for that, the performance element is crucial,” said Li.

Li founded HKFO in order to provide this performance element to the boom of musical professionals from his generation. This is despite well-known orchestras such as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta already being established in the city. HKFO caters to musicians studying at conservatories, musical professionals and professionals in other industries, who would otherwise have fewer opportunities to perform in orchestras regularly. 

Although the composition of the orchestra appears to be mixed at first glance, the group has come together incredibly well precisely because of how all the members share a common heritage in their early musical education, according to Li. He was a second-year law student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) at the time of HKFO’s founding.

The orchestra’s members are recruited both locally and internationally via competitive yearly auditions held in Hong Kong and via online platforms. Past HKFO members include alumni and current students from the U.K.’s Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in the U.K., and the Manhattan School of Music, Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music in the U.S. Some local schools that provide HKFO with talent include the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Baptist University of Hong Kong, and Li’s alma mater, University of Hong Kong.

Challenging Schedules

To accommodate its members’ schedules, HKFO gives an average of three to four performances per year. The performances take place over a one-month period, usually in the summer when other orchestras in the city take their breaks. They are done in a university schedule or music-festival style of programming. The programming has since been expanded to other holidays such as Christmas and Easter. 

Members meet for four to five rehearsals about two to three weeks before each performance. Li’s commitment to rehearsals is usually limited to two to three weeks in the summer or other long holidays, taking a few days of annual leave to prepare for a performance and allowing him to achieve a work-life balance.

The numbers also speak for themselves. Around 300 musicians perform for HKFO in any particular year, with over 1000 musicians performing for HKFO over the past 11 years. 

The orchestra amassed its largest ever ensemble in 2015, where over 400 instrumentalists and choristers performed Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, also known as Grande Messe des morts, a piece that has been performed in Hong Kong only three times in total due to the orchestration required. The performance was conducted by former Bolshoi Theatre Music Director Vasily Sinaisky, who was also invited to guest-conduct in 2016.

Picking the Music

As HKFO’s music director, there are several considerations for Li to take into account when selecting the pieces that HKFO will perform, and the main music choices revolve around guest soloists. The process usually begins a year in advance, a period of time necessary to secure venues through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. 

He also spends the time securing soloists, internationally renowned musicians that local musicians would want to collaborate with. Some artists whom HKFO has collaborated with over the past decade include pianist Yundi Li and cellist Jian Wang in 2014, Eric Whitacre in and violinist Joshua Bell in 2016, and the King’s Singers in 2018.

The orchestra has also done numerous crossover projects, including a musical crossover with local pop artist George Lam, a standup comedy crossover with comedian Jim Chim and YouTube duo Twoset Violin, and an English literature crossover with YouTuber Uncle Siu.

A performance that Li remembers well is HKFO’s choral-orchestral flash mob performance in 2013, Hong Kong’s first and largest at the time. Over 200 musicians were involved in the performance, which has attracted more than two million views on YouTube.

The orchestra, then four years old, performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, or Ode to Joy at the New Town Plaza shopping mall in Sha Tin. Li, 24 years old at the time, had been unsure of how much longer HKFO would exist and recalled having a distinct feeling that time was running out to accomplish something of the magnitude of that performance. 

“The acoustics gave me the feeling that I was in a cathedral. I definitely might not be able to accomplish something like this when I am 60,” he said.

Another performance close to Li’s heart was in Sichuan after an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Chinese province in May 2008. A 19-year-old first-year student at HKU, Li remembers that many Hong Kong university students volunteered to do relief work in that province. What was originally planned as a quartet performance in the city grew into a concert performing three pieces, including Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Shortly afterwards, he started conducting lessons, both in London and in Hong Kong.

When asked to name his favourite piece of music, Li stated that it was impossible to choose just one. There was no hesitation, however, about the merits of conducting.

“Conducting is 80 percent brains and 20 percent hands,” Li said. “I think the biggest attraction to me in conducting is perfecting the art of bringing different people together to achieve otherwise impossible goals.”

“A conductor is often unnecessary unless the music demands it, such as where the number of performers have reached a certain threshold in size or where the music is too complex, that individual performers find it difficult, or impossible, to navigate without a coordinator,” he added.

Music and the Law

There are similarities between conducting and dispute resolution. The conductor reconciles different interpretations of the same piece of music held by the individual musicians performing large-scale music in order to convey the composer’s original intentions as faithfully as possible. Dispute resolution also works by lawyers attempting to interpret differences in the law to be as true as possible to the intentions of legislators and the meaning of judges. 

A good way to dip one’s toes into the conducting world would be to gather a small group of friends who enjoy music together. Li practices what he preaches, with his conducting debut involving the same group of musician friends from his days as a chamber musician performing in small groups. These groups grew from 40 members at the beginning to 400 currently.

Li’s hobbies apart from law and conducting include hiking and cooking, both of which he does regularly. He is a long-time supporter of the Liverpool football club, and also enjoys photography. A more recent interest in marathon running also keeps this barrister busy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted musicians globally and did not spare HKFO. The orchestra was forced to cancel three concerts, and currently has no performances scheduled in 2020, as the Hong Kong government introduced social distancing measures. 

It is too early to predict whether performances will be possible in 2021 and Li is reluctant to take any risks, especially as the orchestra is a non-profit organization. There have been no rehearsals so far this year, and HKFO is taking a cue from other cultural giants like the Metropolitan Opera (Met), which is remastering and streaming past recorded performances for free on its website.

The virus has also impacted lawyers and barristers as well, with court closures in early 2020 during the General Adjournment Period meaning less work for some. The Hong Kong Bar Association, of which Li is a member, has introduced schemes to assist barristers in financial difficulties alongside the Law Society of Hong Kong’s schemes assisting lawyers. 

Li with violinist Joshua bell in 2016