Leanne Nicholls, oboist & founder/Artistic Director of City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have never struggled to think about what I want to do. I knew I wanted to be a musician before I could read music! From a young age I loved to sing and dance. My father played trumpet in an army band and he owned an excellent collection of jazz records. I grew up listening to the sounds of Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Doc Severinsen, The Four Freshmen and Miles Davis, among others. Recorder lessons at primary school introduced me to reading music. Then one day I heard an orchestral concert on television and was captivated by the beautiful sound of the oboe in Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake. As luck would have it, my school had just purchased a new oboe for their instrumental programme and tuition was free. Rosemary Stimson, my high school oboe teacher, was an excellent music mentor who also introduced me to the world of orchestral playing. I played in combined schools orchestras after school hours with the best music students in Adelaide, some of whom have become friends for life, and some went on to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. At university I had the privilege to study under the Czech oboe virtuoso Jiří Tancibudek who was both a world-class performing artist and a dedicated teacher. I will never forget his performance of the Haydn Oboe Concerto and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony before he retired from concert work. I was totally inspired! He lived and breathed music and witnessing his dedication to his art became the best example and influence on my career.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To create, develop and sustain a chamber orchestra in Asia on a bilingual basis. It’s not exactly something you do in your leisure time.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of all our four major recordings for the fact that they feature world premieres or rarely recorded works. They also bring something new and fresh to the world of music. At the same time, they bring memories of happy collaborations. If I was to name just one though, it would be our English Recorder Concertos CD with Michala Petri which features Concerto Incantanto, a work I commissioned from Richard Harvey on the occasion of our orchestra’s 10th anniversary. It is an exceptionally rare occurrence for a recorder virtuoso to write a concerto for another recorder virtuoso and the result was exhilarating! CCOHK is also the first orchestra in Hong Kong to introduce the music of the legendary Astor Piazzolla. Recording and performing with tango experts Daniel Binelli and Polly Ferman has been a great inspiration. Daniel Binelli is the best bandoneonist of our generation and as a composer, a true torchbearer of Piazzolla’s legacy.

As for performances, I like to recall my collaborations with the great flamenco dancer and choreographer Nina Corti. Our performances of Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto and Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite were fresh, new and incredible. Creating new music programmes for young audiences has been another career highlight for me. I have enjoyed the challenge of bringing the orchestra into the theatre by making it a part of the story and the theatrical action (rather than just an accompaniment to the action). The orchestra theatre works I have scripted and written lyrics for in collaboration with Nick Harvey and Scott Ligertwood include Bug Symphony and WILD. To further music education and the appreciation of classical composers in a more historical content, I have also conceptualized and scripted a series of performances with actors introducing the music and life of great composers such as Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach. Haydn and Beethoven. These are performed with actors in costumes, with set and lighting. I am proud of these works because they have evolved out of my own ideas and they have engaged audiences from ages 3 and up.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I feel at home with baroque, romantic and contemporary/crossover works. I very much like the improvisatory nature of baroque and jazz music and being able to put my own stamp or interpretation into such works. My recording of Piazzolla’s Oblivion brings together both the classical and jazz influences I have experienced throughout my life. Among the classics, I particularly enjoy playing Haydn’s symphonies for their great innovation and wit. While traditional orchestra repertoire is my foundation, I am also an artist who needs to expand my brain and grow by discovering new composers, new styles, lesser-known works by great composers and by tackling lesser-known repertoire or even new artforms. I think I perform best something I am discovering for the first time!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I read, I research, I dream, and I have a curious mindset for music I don’t know. I like to meet and converse with artistic friends and partners and brainstorm or bounce off new ideas. I am willing to take programming risks in order to grow and learn in my work. When I have a new project close to the finish line, I am already thinking about what I am going to create next. Every piece I programme on stage has a part of me in it, and I often feel totally exhausted when a performance I have produced is over! If time allows it, I like to chill out for a day to recharge for the next exciting musical adventure.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Choosing repertoire and packaging it together is at the centre of what I do. My repertoire choices are steered by a combination of things. We have limited government funding and so I must choose programmes that I can get an audience for in this part of the world. In the same breath I don’t want to play safe with classical favourites and/or repeat formulas or rerun programmes just to fill the house. I am first and foremost a performing musician, and so I understand the need to grow by being intellectually challenged by new music or by trying new ideas or concepts. I also think it is good to surprise and challenge our audience because audiences need to grow and learn too. Above all, I like my concerts to have a clear artistic goal which keeps everyone from the artists to the marketing, administrative team and the audience totally engaged. I am not keen on producing lollipop concerts, long boring programmes or stereotype overture-concert-symphony sandwich style concerts. There’s no brain power involved. In my mind every piece on the programme needs to be there for a reason.

Programming for children is high on my agenda. Inspiring the next generation with quality and creativity is paramount. I believe if children experience high quality, they will excel towards it.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

In Hong Kong I enjoy playing at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall due to its beautiful acoustics and convenient location.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

In many ways I feel the classical music sector has lost the plot, more especially in places like the USA. The big traditional orchestras tend to manicure the creative industry with neatly defined job roles for running an orchestra and specialized degrees for each area of orchestral administrative life. Most conductors do not enjoy creating family programmes – they leave it to an artistic administrator who has never played in an orchestra before and who often subcontracts the job to a guest conductor. All too often orchestral seasons comprise a set of the chief conductor’s favourite symphonies that are strung together with a concerto and a soloist hired by someone else in the office. It might be a surprise to the audience that most of the highest paid conductors of our generation delegate the programming or commissioning of new works to an artistic director. In order to grow new audiences for classical music I feel we have to go back to the era of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for inspiration. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven made history by multi-tasking and composing and performing their own works. They also put their own orchestras together, booked the venues and sold the tickets. There is no better inspiration. Sir Neville Marriner revolutionized the chamber orchestra as a genre and created a prolific recording career from a home office. We don’t seem to be nurturing the rise of such output today. Somehow the industry and its expectations has stifled it. Composers are not supposed to be performers, performers are not supposed to be administrators, conductors are not expected to be composers, instrumentalists are not supposed to be actors, performers are not supposed to write programme notes and so on. What nonsense we have created! We should pave the way for movers and shakers and new ideas. Allow artists to multi-task if they want to. Let’s not make the next generation too afraid of the manicured dinosaur.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing the oboe strapped to a 3ft high tower behind an illuminated spider web while also activating an animatronic spider costume. Like I said, I like to push the boundaries of performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is having ideas in your head which have not yet been realized.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Specialize and know your strengths but at the same time broaden your horizons and learn new things. Knowledge is power.

What is your most treasured possession?

My family.

What is your present state of mind?

Creative and content.

Founder, Artistic Director and Principal Oboist of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Leanne Nicholls studied oboe and singing at The University of Adelaide in Australia and graduated with First Class Honours in performance. Her stage roles include Gilmer in Schwartz’s Godspell, Mrs Noye’s Gossip in Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, Papagena in The Magic Flute (understudy) and Miss Orb in Bug Symphony. She has also performed as a member of the RTHK Singers. For RTHK Radio 4 she appears as an occasional host for Morning Call. Leanne Nicholls began her orchestral career at the age of 18 and has performed as an oboist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Macao Orchestra and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Based in Hong Kong since 1989, she started orchestral management on the cuff of producing the orchestra for Jacky Chan’s action-comedy film Twin Dragons. In 1999 she founded City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong (CCOHK) and has led the orchestra’s executive and artistic planning for the past 20 years. For CCOHK she has also scripted and produced numerous original shows for young audiences combining the orchestra with theatrical elements. Her script-writing credits include Vivaldi Unmasked (2018), The Star Bach (2018), Magnificent Mozart (2017) and Bug Symphony (2015) which was nominated for the category of Best Large Ensemble at the YAMawards 2017 in Portugal and won the Public Choice Award. Her productions have also been presented at the International Arts Carnival and at the China Shanghai International Arts Festival. In 2009 Leanne Nicholls was awarded a commendation certificate by the Secretary for Home Affairs of the Hong Kong SAR Government for her contributions to the development of arts and cultural activities.