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From the Junior Music Programme to the Bachelor of Music (Honours) degree, a decade at the Academy prepared Lio Kuok-man for his stellar career as a world-renowned conductor and pianist. 


Arriving from Paris, Lio Kuok-man spent two days in Hong Kong before setting out for a concert in Busan, South Korea. With a hectic schedule packed with performances around the world — over 300 days of touring a year — the fast-rising Chinese conductor made time to visit his alma mater in Hong Kong. “It is a great school. It has great teachers,” Lio answered without hesitation when asked why he chose to study music at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.


Born in Macao, Lio is the first Chinese conductor appointed as assistant conductor with The Philadelphia Orchestra and has served as the orchestra’s Asia Residency Artistic Advisor and Conductor. He is also a founding member and President of the Macao Chamber Music Association, receiving the Medal of Cultural Merit from the Macao government in 2014. Lio has also worked with many leading orchestras around the world, including the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.


Lio shared with us his first memory of orchestral music at the age of four — a concert that sparked his passion for conducting. “As I stepped into the concert hall, the sight of orchestra members, all seated and prepared on the stage, captivated me. Then the conductor appeared and raised the ‘chopstick’ in his hand; the whole orchestra followed him. The feeling was magical.” Soon after Lio began learning the piano and won a music contest in Macao, which awarded him a scholarship to take part in the Academy’s Junior Music Programme – beginning the years when Lio travelled to Hong Kong for his piano lessons every Saturday morning.


“I still remember seeing the Academy from the bridge for the first time. I was so excited. It felt like a dream come true.” Excitement quickly gave way to the perturbed finding of his drawbacks. “Most of my classmates had already received ear training when they were younger, plus they were familiar with musical theory. I was far behind them.” To be qualified for the Academy’s full-time programmes, the secondary school student from Macao had to pass the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). “While my classmates would practise four hours a day, I practised eight hours. The longest practice I had lasted from 6am till midnight. When I finally got home, I still had to study for my HKCEE.”


Lio’s hard work paid off. He graduated with first-class honours, which he attributes to his teacher — Professor Gabriel Kwok, Head of Keyboard Studies. “Professor Kwok taught me how to play well-rounded sounds that are pleasant to the ear. He always guided and experimented with me. His mentorship also helped greatly with my conducting career — which requires finding harmony among different musical instruments.” Lio identifies with the Academy’s holistic educational approach. He believes that a musician should develop a diverse range of interests. Throughout his campus life, he was eager to experiment with different musical instruments and other musicians. “I always took the initiative to play piano accompaniments for other musicians,” he said with a smile.


Now that he has become the “chopstick man” he always aspired to be, Lio realises the higher meaning of his career — to spread the message of music. He used priests as a metaphor. “When a priest explains the Bible, he never changes a word. Conductors are the same. We remain loyal to the composers as we interpret the message of their creations to the audience. We are messengers.” To precisely interpret these messages, Lio explained, requires broad musical knowledge. “A conductor has to understand the sheet music in his hands, its history, and every instrument. Only then can he lead over a hundred of musicians to perform until the last note. It is just like directing a film. Directors have to understand the meaning behind every line in the script. Sheet music is my script. I want to be able to inspire every musician who works with me, and to interpret the soul of a composition with them precisely.”


The ardent performer is also dedicated to fostering nextgen musicians. “My music career was full of potholes. I want to share my experience with newcomers and to encourage them, so their development could be easier.” To motivate the juniors at the Academy, Lio conducted a concert performed by the Academy Symphony Orchestra in 2017. At the end of the show, Lio found himself inspired by these young aspirers. “From their eyes, I saw their curiosity for performing techniques and for learning. This is an essential trait. Studying music is a very long road and setbacks are inevitable. You may even feel lost. These days of confusion, however, are valuable. They help you understand and equip yourself better, so you can become a better musician and a better person.”


(The article was published in the Jun 2019 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)

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