We caught up with Linda at the Arts Centre Melbourne while the Hong Kong Philharmonic were on their Australian tour earlier in 2017.
You've been with the Hong Kong Phil for over 15 years now, having started your career with them after finishing your studies. Now that you're based in Hong Kong permanently, do you get back to Australia very often?
I played here in Melbourne with the Australian World Orchestra and that was a really lovely experience, but this is the first time I've been here with my own orchestra from Hong Kong. I grew up in Sydney and went to the Canberra School of Music before moving to Manchester to do some post-grad study. I actually auditioned for the Hong Kong Phil job in London, and after winning the audition I moved and didn't look back. At the time I thought that it would be a nice first job and a great opportunity, but I’m still there 20 years later!
Were you expecting to stay on in Hong Kong for so long?
No not at all, I was very much expecting to be there for just a couple of years as I sort of made my way home from the United Kingdom. I definitely knew that it was a wonderful opportunity, but as a young music student not knowing anything about Hong Kong or the orchestra I just thought it was a little bit closer to home and it would be a great experience. And then the years just kept going along! I ended up meeting my now-husband here - he’s also in the orchestra. We have three children now and are extremely settled in Hong Kong, but I will always think of Australia as home.
You've had quite a bit of experience travelling away from home for your music - to study and then later for work. Can you tell me about your initial travels?
As a young musician in the days that I was studying, I had the opportunity to do several youth orchestra tours, which were wonderful experiences, but were always more short term kind of adventures. The biggest endeavour in my time as a student was to move to the UK to do some post-grad study, and at that time I was probably quite naive. Manchester at that time could be a bit rough and I was very aware of things like that. At the time I had some really good school friends living in London so I was very much in touch with them and I was very lucky to have family members and my parents came around at Christmas time, which helped a lot. The atmosphere around the Royal Northern College of Music was very warm, with a friendly atmosphere amongst the students and amongst staff. I never felt alone and homesick or worried about anything. I think the bigger challenge for me was feeling safe getting around on my own!
Figuring out how to get around is such a huge learning curve when you're somewhere new!
Actually, getting to my audition for the Hong Kong Phil was a pretty big challenge! I was in Manchester but the auditions were being held in London, so I had to figure out how to get myself there on my shoestring student budget. My audition time was scheduled around 10am, so I turned up at the train station in Manchester to get on the early train, and realised it was sort of the peak hour for people commuting. So it was the high peak fare time, and I couldn’t afford it! I remember standing there thinking that I just couldn’t pay for this train ticket, and I knew the cutoff time for the higher fare was something like 11am, where suddenly the fares dropped to a much lower price and I didn't know what to do because either way, I would miss the audition. I was somehow able to contact the staff members of the Hong Kong Phil to say that I was very sorry, but I wasn't going to be able to get there at my scheduled time and very luckily they said to just get on any train and come a little bit later in the afternoon. So I found my way there eventually! So really being on and managing a budget is something I quickly had to learn about while overseas.
Phew! What a story! Tell me about that audition - did the train situation change how you played?
I think I was very lucky at that time to go into that audition room with a pretty in-check attitude: of course, I wanted to go for it and knew how fabulous it would be to win, but it wasn’t a make or break situation. I didn’t have all my eggs in one basket thinking that my life depended on the outcome. I think that's the best way to go in because you’re just that much more relaxed. I mean, I didn’t have another job waiting for me and I didn’t really know what was about to happen when my studies finished but I guess I wasn’t in a situation where I was really really dependent on having to win that job. Then the venue makes a difference - this audition wasn't in a concert hall, it was in a hired venue. The maestro at the time was there, and some management people, so there was no big panel of orchestra musicians to play in front of. That’s the way the Hong Kong orchestra recruits: they go around to the many cities looking for players, record the auditions, then go back and make their decision. After playing in the orchestra for 20 years, you feel like you can almost do the job with your eyes closed and it’s not an issue, but to go into an audition and prove yourself - that is very much a skill.
So now you've done it for 20 years, what does an average day look like in the Hong Kong Phil?
It involves travelling from home to rehearsal venue, early enough so you can warm up. If you turn up on the dot, you don't have the time to unwind and prepare, so you need to be there a bit ahead of time to get into a nice calm state of mind. In Hong Kong, we would normally have two rehearsals in a day: 10:30-1:00pm, then a one-hour lunch break, then 2-4:30pm. On paper, it doesn’t look like a big day with lots of hours, but there’s a lot of personal preparation that is necessary.
And around those hours you've also got another job: mum! How do you juggle working in the orchestra and being at home with your kids and finding some downtime just for yourself?
It's a real juggle: you have to prioritise family life but still be able to turn up, tune, sit on stage and deliver as if you've got absolutely nothing else going on. You can't ever come in and make an excuse - I don't think you can ever really do that as an orchestral musician. You've really got to nail that consistency and know that you can turn up and sit in that chair and deliver no matter what has been going in the hour before you got there. My husband also plays in the orchestra and that helps - we are both on the same schedule and you get to understand the other person's work and stresses. Then there are difficulties, like us both being away from the family at the same time, but when you think about it, we're extremely lucky to be doing something we love so much! After all these years I've never had a day where I've thought "why do I have to go to work today?" There's always something new and we have wonderful colleagues who have known us for so long! When I saw that little ad saying the Hong Kong Phil auditions were happening in London, a part of me thought well, that's a big undertaking, is it worth it? And I'm so glad I did! So I would say: go for everything. If you don't turn up, you've got no chance whatsoever and you never know - they might have been looking for someone just like you!