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Orchestrating a career in music
Published on Friday, 20 Jan 2012
Margaret Yang,
Chief executive officer, Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Photo: Berton Chang

Would a trendy and successful intellectual-property lawyer ever change her job and join a not-for-profit organisation with considerably lower salary and a lot of worry? Quite unlikely, but this is exactly what Margaret Yang did. 

Various factors moved her to shift from a glamorous career that she enjoyed to another that she loved, among them the hope that she could further the cause of classical music in Hong Kong.

"I always considered how I could fully maximise my ability to make the world a better place, and look beyond the immediate benefit," says Yang, Hong Kong Sinfonietta's chief executive. "Listening to music, you can live in a very wonderful world. We want to show that world to others."

As many cultural players have noted, finding top art administrators in Hong Kong is next to herculean, given the limited opportunities for work experience here compared with the situation in Britain, Australia or the US, with their many orchestras and other art organisations.

Another clincher for Yang, therefore, was the lack of a trained person who could take up the baton. "There were lots of lawyers, but the board said there was nobody suited to start up this orchestra," she says. "The prospect of having something new, and changing the environment, was also something quite exciting."

In any case, Yang had both the education and experience. She majored in music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and played the piano and viola. After graduation, she "jumped into the first position that was open" at the Hong Kong Philharmonic - handling marketing, a step she found natural and attractive. Yang also worked with the Hong Kong Art Festival for a year before moving to London for a post-graduate in art administration.

A six-month post-diploma secondment at an artist agency became a couple of years, during which she helped organise the first large-scale Japanese festival in Britain. Although the agency was a commercial organisation, it gave Yang strong experience in artist management and organisation.

Yang then discovered the intricacies of law after observing that lawyers could charge very high fees while providing contracts that didn't really fit the needs of artist management. Intrigued, she studied for a degree in Cambridge, did her one-year practical course and two years of traineeship before becoming a practicing lawyer.

Her firm, Lovells, sent her to Hong Kong to take up a position in intellectual property, just as she noted the news of a new orchestra in the city and the idea of service to Hong Kong moved her.

"What is there to lose? Don't you love music? Just [go and] see what they are doing," she recalls saying to herself at the time, and the rest is history, albeit a slightly shocking one to her colleagues. Some months after she left, they even went to visit her in the Sinfonietta quarters to ask her to come back. It didn't work, but they became staunch supporters: Hogan Lovells is the orchestra's honorary legal consultant.

Yang says what keeps her awake these days is the daunting financing challenge, as government funds can only cover about half of the Sinfonietta's expenses. With 60 musicians and a compact administration staff needing salaries every month and a yearly expense of about HK$3 million on renting government venues, the orchestra cannot function without strong support from private patrons.

Unfortunately, while Hong Kong people and corporations are very generous in helping those in need, they are not used to idea of supporting the arts.

"If you work as an art administrator, you will never be rich. You will be rich inside. We try to encourage the thought that we have spiritual earnings," Yang says.

Her real reward, she adds, is when she sees the audience enthralled and meets someone who has fallen in love with music because of the Sinfonietta. "This orchestra has been going for 12 years. With all the developments it has made, I hope it's become part of the fabric of Hong Kong society," Yang says.