The stars of Canto-pop and company karaoke nights might disagree but, in Yip Wing-sie's opinion, there is no doubt that classical music remains a "very cool" branch of the arts.
"If you have strong feelings about music, you'll get a real emotional response whenever you hear a beautiful aria or symphony," says the current music director and conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. "Understanding music enhances our ability to appreciate beautiful things and helps to bring hope to our lives."
Ms Yip's role also brings her a great deal of fun and a constant array of challenges. However, she wouldn't have it any other way and, in fact, never seriously considered any other career. The day-to-day work is far from routine and each aspect of it is guaranteed to keep her on her toes.
"For example, every concert requires something different from the conductor," Ms Yip says. "The stage, the sound system, the audience, the different companies or orchestras you work with, and the music itself always give me new sensations and experiences."
During her career, Ms Yip has worked with renowned musicians and toured all over the world. However, her personal mission and ultimate goal has been to make classical music more popular in Hong Kong. To this end, she has taken part in a wide variety of "alternative" performances, including a concert in which the Hong Kong Sinfonietta played with pop stars Andy Hui and William So. Coming up in September 2006 is a concert with Taiwanese pop singer Chang Hsin-che. A series of performances combining classical music and theatrical works are on the agenda, featuring theatre icon Chim Shui-man in this coming November. "People may come to the shows to see Chim, but they will enjoy our music as well," Ms Yip says. "Such events constitute only a small part of my work, but they are a good way of putting classical music in the spotlight."
Whatever the type of performance, the conductor's first task is to establish good communication with the artists and a common understanding. "The whole orchestra consists of dozens of musicians, so I must first build a good rapport with them," she says. This will involve learning about their different backgrounds and individual qualities, and explaining things as necessary so that everyone knows what is expected.
"Artists usually have a lot in common," Ms Yip notes. "For example, we can all anticipate an audience's response when we play certain kinds of music. Also, when rehearsing for a show, we very quickly learn what we expect from each other without having to spell things out explicitly."
Although Hong Kong may not yet be Asia's cultural centre, Ms Yip has been greatly encouraged by the government's substantial investment in promoting art and culture over the last 20 years. "There are now more than 10 professional arts companies which perform regularly, and I believe the government will continue to support us generously," she says. Up and coming musicians are also making their mark and helping to raise overall standards. In large part, this is thanks to the efforts of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, which consistently nurtures young performers and brings them to the attention of a wider public. "Even so, we still need to come up with new initiatives to promote the arts and expand the audience," Ms Yip says.
Many such hopes centre on the possible development of the much-discussed West Kowloon cultural project. Proposed plans suggest that the venue could accommodate a total audience of 20,000 to 30,000 each evening. "We may have to wait 10 years for the project to be completed, but we should start planning now for how to attract such audiences," Ms Yip notes. "It is important to educate the public and that starts with schools allowing students the time to learn music and participate in more arts events."
With a father who is a conductor, Ms Yip and her two sisters used to perform as members of his children's choir both locally and overseas during the summer holidays. She was obviously destined for a life in music and has never suffered from stage fright. She believes that some people are born with an aptitude to work in "the front line" without any sense of nerves. "I guess I have always had the ability to stand up in front of people," she says. "If children are encouraged and given opportunities to perform, they will grow up able to face people and meet challenges. That is excellent training."
Having won many international awards, Ms Yip feels that these are like a guarantee of quality and have given her greater self-confidence. She admits, though, that not all performances have reached her own high expectations. "We must know our strengths and limitations," she says. "Being recognised and appreciated is one thing, but you can always find ways to improve. Also, when you've reached a certain level, you should then aim higher."
Motherhood brought a new set of challenges, but Ms Yip has taken them in her stride. "Getting married and having a baby means you have less time and space for yourself," she says. "I've found myself less self-conscious and more responsible, but I'm still learning what it takes."
Family responsibilities have made her a better time manager and created a new balance between work and domestic life. "I sometimes feel guilty if I can't spend enough time with my family, but this happens to many working mothers," she says. "However, children grow up so quickly these days, in a few years' time they probably won't need me!"