By Emily Chu
In ArtisTree’s Rising Star series, we celebrate exciting emerging talent from across Hong Kong’s arts and culture landscape. Here, we speak to bassoonist Tommy Liu Tung-bo – one of the recent recipients of the The Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund Scholarship – about the perfect performance, and the path to professionalism.
The bassoon is a beautiful, bass woodwind instrument that’s crucial to an orchestra, but not often considered as a “starter” instrument for budding musicians.
Such was the case for rising star Tommy Liu Tung-bo.
“I actually started on the violin, but realised it wasn’t for me,” Liu says. “I would accompany my older brother to his bassoon lessons. When my dad saw my growing interest, he thought it was a good idea to let me try it, too.” Liu picked up his first bassoon when he was 7 years old, but it wasn’t an immediate connection. Despite instructors seeing potential early on, Liu remained doubtful: “I really was just ‘playing’ around!” But with perseverance, he soon saw music, and the bassoon, as his future.
“I love the versatility of its tone,” says Liu of the bassoon. “It’s really special. It can be melancholy and low, sounding like an old, mature person. But it also has a playful, yet tender side.” There is one agonising element to playing this double-reed instrument, however: making the actual reeds. “Piano players enjoy the luxury of just playing and practising. For bassoonists, we have an additional responsibility. It’s a meticulous craft. My instructors start by whittling down a bamboo stick...”
Already named one of RTHK’s Young Music Makers in 2015, Liu recently won a Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund scholarship. “I was in Germany at the time, auditioning for schools, and woke up to the good news,” Liu says. “I was elated!” Auditions, whether for admission or for an accolade, bring out a new kind of necessary confidence in Liu, one that is different to that of a performance. “Auditions are more nerve-wracking, because there is an end goal. Performances are subjective, but how the audience reacts to my performance will not necessarily affect an outcome.”
Unlike other musicians who aspire to perform in grand, world-renowned concert halls, Liu prefers to bring music to the masses. “I love [Hong Kong] City Hall, which has great acoustics, but the audience there can be very well-composed – even the smallest stomach grumble can be heard!” Rather, Liu’s idea of a perfect performance space is intimate and interactive. “I love playing at the Fringe Club, where the atmosphere is more relaxed, and I can really connect with the audience.”
Still, that’s not enough. As the chairman of the Bassoonion, an organisation that brings together bassoon players both young and old, “I’d like to see more public space become available for musicians,” says Liu. “Some MTR stations have space that can be utilised as ad hoc performance spaces. I don’t want to just play for an audience who can afford concert tickets – I want more people to get to know my kind of music. I want a classical composer’s name to be as familiar as Eason Chan’s.”
Two days after this interview, Liu left Hong Kong to pursue his Masters degree in Frankfurt. “I just want to learn as much as I can,” Liu says. “I want to learn different teaching techniques from my instructors, so I can apply them to my own students in the future, back in Hong Kong.”
But there is an even bigger goal to achieve. “Music motivates me to face my future. Likewise, I want to help others through music, for it to bring joy to people. I’ve played at an elderly home, and the response I received was priceless,” Liu says.