The 51st HK Arts Festival

King's Harmonica Quintet — Blowing in the Wind

Text / Cindy Chong

The pandemic has posed a great challenge for harmonica performances. Due to the way the instrument is played, harmonica players are unable to wear the kind of musician masks specially designed for wind instrument players. The King's Harmonica Quintet, which won the champion title at the World Harmonica Festival in 1997, was scheduled to perform at the Hong Kong Arts Festival for the third time in 2022. Unfortunately, that had to be postponed due to the pandemic. The quintet is now due to return in 2023 and audiences can witness the vitality of the ensemble after playing together for more than 35 years.

A brotherhood based on a shared passion

The members of the quintet were co-alumni of different years at King's College and then went to different universities. But their shared passion for harmonica playing brought this brotherhood back together. Rocky Lok Ying-kei recalls how the quintet rehearsed together during recess in their junior high school years. "Our quintet was formed on the basis of typical mentorship among seniors and juniors," he says. And under their influence, younger harmonica players in Hong Kong continue to be coached in the same way.

They stood out in the world of music for playing classical pieces on harmonica, yet arranging musical works for a harmonica quintet isn't exactly easy. Harmonicas have both blow and draw notes, and the compatibility of the sounds produced by different harmonicas and other instruments must be considered when arranging these works. By adding an extra tenor harmonica, the twin tenors can make certain octaves overlap with the treble and bass notes. While adding dynamic strength to the middle voices, they are able to exploit the potential of the harmonica and allow music from different instruments to blend in better during their performances.

When arranging compositions, members of the quintet never simplify the original music as they seek to demonstrate the capabilities of the harmonica using various techniques. For instance, with the rearranged String Quartets of Shostakovich, all movements are extremely difficult and demand high levels of collaboration among players. Of Shostakovich's 15 String Quartets, the quintet has already performed five of them, and will present its sixth—String Quartet No 4 in D major, Op 83—at the upcoming HKAF concert. The quintet had already started arranging this piece before its first performance at the HKAF in 2000, demonstrating how the arrangement process has always been complex and time consuming. Certain members usually first take the lead when arranging a piece, but the arrangement is revised and modified at every practice session as the members seek perfection. Luckily, they can occasionally work with their friend, experienced harmonica player Chan Ngai-kin, whose arrangements perfectly align with the quintet's goals. He was responsible for rearranging two pieces for the 2023 concert.

A journey into Russian music

Over the years, the quintet has endeavoured to perform with its original line-up. When at least three members are available, they invite guest performers to replace any absent members. At the upcoming concert, with original member Lau Chun-bong now living overseas, the quintet has invited Ivan Chong Ting-ho, who has worked with the ensemble many times, to play the first tenor harmonica in his place. The concert is divided into two parts. In the first half, the four original members of the quintet will play two pieces by Mozart, hoping to draw in audiences with lively melodies. This will be their first time performing a full work with pianist Nancy Loo as they play Piano Quartet No1 in G minor, K478, which is also one of the major works first composed for piano quartet.

The quintet and harpist Dan Yu will also collaborate for the first time at the concert. The second half of the concert begins with a solo by Yu, whom the quintet is collaborating with for the first time. The quintet and Yu will then take the audience on a journey through Russian music and will conclude the concert with the abovementioned work by Shostakovich.

Journey of the World Champion: King's Harmonica Quintet 2023

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/kings_harmonica_quintet