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Maestro of Macao

Sun, 17th Jan 2010
Meet Lu Jia, Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Macao Orchestra. (January 2010)

“Macao will be one of the cultural centres of Asia”, he says confidently as he outlines his bold plans for the orchestra, which he began directing in September 2008. 

In the short time that he was been with the Macao Orchestra, he has seen definite improvements but as far as he is concerned, his job has only just begun with this relatively young ensemble. 

The Macao Orchestra in its current form, only truly came into being in 2002, under the direction of its first principal conductor, Shao En. However its beginnings actually date back to much earlier, when in 1983, Father Aureo de Castro of the St Pious X Academy of Music, and a group of local music lovers, founded the Macao Chamber Orchestra. Over the years under the guidance of the Cultural Affairs Bureau and a number of renowned musical directors, the Chamber Orchestra grew and developed, and from 1989, it began performing at the Macao International Music Festival and the Macao Arts Festival every year. 

These highly successful events have not only pushed the orchestra to improve, but have given its members the opportunity to work with a number of internationally distinguished musicians and conductors along the way, something that most young orchestras would not normally have experienced. 

Since 1997 the orchestra has also toured extensively throughout mainland China and in 1999 it performed eight concerts in five different cities in Portugal and Spain. 

No small achievement for this small territory, most widely recognised in recent times as the gaming capital of Asia. But for Lu Jia, Macao is much more than this, and the development and promotion of its orchestra is a critical factor in demonstrating the strong cultural elements of the city. 

“Historically Macao was the centre point for cultural exchange between Europe, China and the whole of Asia. It is an incredible story, and the best and most direct way to show the cultural level of Macao today is through music”, he noted. 

A musical family 

Born in 1968 in Shanghai, it was clear from an early age that Lu would follow in the footsteps of his musical parents. 

“My father was a conductor and my mother was a singer, so it was very interesting when my first job was as an opera conductor”, he mused. 

In fact Lu’s father was conductor of the Guangzhou Military Orchestra before taking on the role as head of the Chinese National Band. 

Little wonder then that Lu Jia began learning the piano and violin at an early age, and at 15 attended a school attached to the Beijing Central Conservatoire.At 18 he began his studies in conducting under the expert tutelage of Professor Zhen Xiaoying, but it still took a few years for him to realise that this would be his life long career. 

“In the beginning I was still not 100 percent involved emotionally. I liked it but not so passionately”, admited Lu. “At middle school I was very interested in maths and science, and I was very good at them too”. 

The influence of Professor Zhen however, who was then Chief Conductor of the Beijing Central Opera, proved to be critical in moulding the young talent. 

“She is a wonderful lady and I learned a lot from her”, he recalled. “The most important thing was the way she worked. She had so much passion, and was so professional, hard working and paid so much attention to detail. 

“After an opera, she wouldn’t sleep, but would sit and go over all the scores to mark down what wasn’t perfect, like a scientific study”. 

German influences 

Another pivotal moment came in 1989, when Lu left China for Berlin to attend classes with Maestro Hans Martin Rabenstein. It was here that he truly fell in love with conducting. “In Germany, my knowledge and understanding of music totally changed, especially classical music. I realised that as a conductor, you can make anything happen with the music. It is not just about reading the score, but also about how you use your feelings and imagination to combine the colour and sounds. That’s when I thought ‘wow!’ 

“For some composers like Beethoven and Schubert, you can play all the notes that are written correctly, but for me that’s still only 20 percent. The rest is what you bring to it creatively”. 

Remarkably, Lu did not actually finish his formal studies, as fate seemingly intervened, offering a unique and exciting opportunity to begin conducting professionally in Italy. 

In 1990 he entered the Antonio Pedrotti International Conducting Competition in Trento, Italy, but initially he was not accepted and was told that he was ‘on standby’. A week before the competition though, he received a letter inviting him to enter and he made the journey by train from Berlin to Venice to Trento. 

“I was late arriving and got there just as the general secretary of the competition was locking the doors. We went and had dinner together and became good friends. I really think this coincidence changed my life, and it was only later that she told me that there had actually been 12 conductors on standby for the competition and I was number 12!” 

Despite his late entry, Lu went on to win the competition and one of the jurors quickly offered him the job as principal conductor at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste, a position he held for five years. 

“As a young conductor I was very lucky to get the job as an opera conductor. You need to have lots of experience, you need to know the language, how to sing, breathe and phrase”, he noted. 

So at the young age of 26, Lu Jia found himself in the somewhat daunting position of conducting operas in Italy. “It was a great challenge, because in Italy if you do it wrong, they’ll kill you!” he joked. 

A prestigious career 

Lu never returned to complete his studies in Berlin but instead embarked on a truly remarkable career that has spanned nearly 20 years, accruing a number of impressive accolades and achievements along the way. He has conducted over 2000 concerts in Europe and the Americas, and cooperated with more than 100 opera houses and orchestras. He counted in his repertoire around 60 operas, and in 1995 was the first Chinese conductor to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and to record the complete works of German composer Felix Mendelssohn. 

At present he is the Music Director of the Arena di Verona, in Italy, the world’s largest open-air opera theatre, and also the Artistic Director of the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra in Spain. 

Returning to the Motherland 

But after years of working at the highest levels of the European orchestral scene, gradually Lu has looked for more opportunities to return to his homeland, and to give something back. 

“Beijing built a new opera house which gave me the opportunity to work there. And I wanted to return to China to build an excellent, world-class orchestra”, he said. 

While working in Beijing around five years ago he met with the Vice-president of the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau, Alice Wong, and Macao Orchestra Manager, Mr Cao Yiji, and began to discuss the prospect of coming to Macao. But Lu had one very important condition. 

“I asked them why they wanted me to come there and what they wanted me to do”, he explained. “If they wanted me to be there as a name only, then I was not interested. I really wanted to do something significant”. 

Understandably, Lu’s condition was gratefully accepted and he began with the orchestra, to continue on the fine work of its first principal conductor, Shao En. 

According to Lu, the greatest challenge was changing the mindset of both the orchestra members and the community at large, to inspire them to aim even higher. 

“People need to feel proud of the orchestra, and honoured to be a member”, he said. 

As for the highlights, Lu considers the orchestra’s concert with famed Chinese pianist Lang Lang in Hong Kong last year, and this year’s performance at the Shanghai Music Festival, as two of the key moments of his tenure so far. 

“All the professional music reviews of our performance (in Shanghai) said that the Macao Orchestra was incredible”, noted Lu with obvious pride. 

And most recently the orchestra performed for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Macao SAR, with world famous Chinese cellist, Jian Wang, whom Lu considers to be one of the top three cellists in the world today. 

Looking to the future 

Such prestigious performances are an important step towards increasing the international reputation of the orchestra. And as the orchestra becomes more well known, Lu hoped to be able to attract more high-calibre players as permanent members. 

“The support we have from the government is excellent, and the salary for members is good, but we need more international fame to attract high-profile members”. 

Currently the orchestra has around 60 members, from a number of countries including China, America, Australia and Russia. Notably the average age of the orchestra is also very young, which Lu sees as a positive. 

“Having a blank piece of paper is always a good thing”, he commented. 

Only one of the current members is actually from Macao, cellist Kuong Pou-lei, and this is something the Music Director would also like to see change, but he is realistic about the challenge. 

“Of course it takes a long time to build up local talent”, he observed. “Now the age at the conservatory is getting younger and the talent better. We certainly aim to get more local musicians in the orchestra. If they have the same level of talent, then of course they will be given priority”. 

Other goals for Lu in the future include increasing the repertoire and overall skill level of the orchestra, and planning more international tours. 

One crucial issue that he is also very passionate about is having a world-class concert hall in Macao. This is vital as far as Lu is concerned and he offered three main points to consider. 

“First it must have world class acoustics. Second it must be aesthetically beautiful, a landmark like the Sydney Opera House. And finally the capacity must be over 1,500 seats. Even if now in Macao we don’t have such large audiences for our concerts, we must think of the future”, he advised. 

On where such a concert hall would be located, Lu is not particularly concerned. For him more important is when, and the answer is “as soon as possible”. 

Music for the people 

Lu views his responsibilities as more than just to the development of the members of the orchestra. He is also concerned about how to make music a more integral part of the lives of Macao people in general. On this matter his approach is simple – passion. 

“Classical music represents a language that is more than 400 years old in some cases. The reason it remains is because of the passion, love, imagination and spirit that went into creating it in the first place”, offers Lu. “But if you don’t show the passion of the music to the audience, then of course they will be bored. I would be bored too!” 

And this is where Lu’s love for his job comes to the fore. 

“As a conductor, through your ideas about the music, you are completely in command of your work with the orchestra, the sounds and the phrases of the music. And through your passion and charisma you can pass this on to the audience”, he explains. 

“I don’t mind if the audience has a knowledge of music or not, I want to give them something that has an impact”. 

And how does it feel when he achieves this? 

“There are some things that words cannot describe, that’s why we have music, but if I had to say... heaven. Only music can give this to you.” 

From Beijing 

Sophie Chen Xue qing began playing cello when she was eight years old. She moved from Beijing to study at the Southern California University Music Department, and lived and worked in the States for 12 years. She joined the Macao Orchestra six years ago as it gave her a chance to live closer to her family in China and to work with world-class musical directors and conductors. 

“We all work very happily together, and it’s easy to have a close relationship with my colleagues. Many are my former classmates from the Beijing Conservatoire”, say Sophie. “We are getting better and better every year, so I definitely hope to stay on long term”. 

From California 

Now in his third season with the Macao Orchestra, Principle Trombonist Christian Goldsmith is also a graduate from the University of Southern California. His wife is Principle Flautist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and being a member of a young orchestra like Macao’s has given him opportunities that he might not otherwise have had. 

“It has been a very dynamic experience and it requires a lot of flexibility. This has been my first contracted orchestral position, so to be given a principle position in a full-time orchestra has been a big learning curve”.


By Mark Phillips in Macao

(Issue N. 2, January 2010)