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Five Minutes With: Gordon Lee, world-champion harmonicist

By Celia Lee 17 February 2023

Header image courtesy of Musica del Cuore

When somebody mentions classical music, grand concert halls with a world-class orchestra usually comes to mind. But what if we told you classical music and its players have been evolving all this time into something more modern and, dare we say, hip? We spoke with world-champion harmonica player Gordon Lee after his opening performance at the concert series “Musica del Cuore.” Join us as he shares his passion for his instrument, his advice for aspiring musicians, and how the classical can be incorporated into the new.

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Photo: Musica del Cuore

How did you first get into classical music?

I don’t think I can pinpoint a time for when I first got into classical music; I basically have been listening to it before I was born. My mother mentioned that she would play classical music to me when I was still in her womb. However, I do remember when I decided to pursue classical music as a profession: when I won first place in the International Concerto Competition Carnegie Hall in New York in 2013.

Being offered a chance to compete and perform solo in Carnegie Hall was an extremely rewarding experience for me as a young musician, and it gave me a glimpse of what the world of classical music is like early on in my career.

Why did you choose to play the harmonica?

I would say the harmonica is not a mainstream instrument like the violin or the cello, but it caught my attention ever since the first time I listened to its music. So, it has always been my one and only choice from a career perspective. However, I also know how to play the erhu, the sheng, and the violin. Although to me, they are nothing like the harmonica, which still manages to transport me to a different world when I play it.

I think the harmonica makes a very cord-like sound, one that is similar to string instruments. Its music is not fixed or singular but rather more dynamic. For example, you can control its volume and create vibrato, making it a perfect fit for scores written for strings.

The harmonica is an instrument that can be adapted and changed according to how each player wields it, making it more expressive of their personality. For example, it is a tradition to create vibrato using your hand, but I do this by changing the way I breathe into the instrument, much like how singers control their voices. I think incorporating these new techniques can give established scores a different sound when played, allow them to greet the audience with a newer, more expressive visage.

Photo: Musica del Cuore

Who is your favourite composer and favourite score?

Sergei Rachmaninoff. Not only are his works phenomenal, but his life story has also enlightened and inspired me as a harmonicist. Rachmaninoff experienced self-doubt and emotional crises in his formative years as his works were yet to be recognised. Eventually, his determination to musicality served him well and now he is the maestro that every musician reverses. To me, the harmonica is similar to Rachmaninoff’s story. Although not yet mainstream and popular now, I am determined to introduce the instrument to people and make it blossom and shine even more in the world of music in my own modest way.

As for scores, I don’t really have a favourite one to play. I always seek out repertoire that I am interested in and committed to, and I believe every score has something unique that I will like. But the piece that means the most to me has to be “Prelude and Dance” by Robert Farnon, which earned me the champion title for the World Harmonica Festival in 2017.

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Photo: Musica del Cuore

You were crowned the World Harmonica Festival champion in 2017. Can you tell us more about how you felt when you earned this title?

The World Harmonica Festival is known as the Olympics of the harmonica, and having won the competition definitely had a profound influence on me. It was an affirmation of my ability to play in a way that reached the audience meaningfully through music as well as an affirmation of my lifelong career as a musician. It would always be one of the pinnacles of my journey as a musician, and continues to motivate me to strive for the next peak.

Photo: Musica del Cuore

You have travelled the world for your performances. Has any one place made a lasting impression?

One trip that stands out in my mind was when I travelled to Berlin for a recital with Helen [Cha, the musical director of “Musica del Cuore” and an internationally renowned pianist]. Berlin is the place that effortlessly allows me to feel a sublime connection between myself and the audience. It’s almost like music is the heartbeat of Berlin; you find music everywhere in the city, from jazzy strains reverberating through bars and clubs to renowned orchestras playing in highbrow concert halls, to street musicians uplifting the city with graceful little tunes. Everyone is pouring their musical hearts out and I wanted to do the same, so I did.

Photo: Musica del Cuore

What was the most difficult challenge you have had to overcome?

For a period back in 2010, I would feel really exhausted and out of breath after performing long pieces. This was devastating to a wind instrument player. Fortunately, I met my maestros in career and life: Howard Levy, Franz Chmel, and Cheng Tak-Wai, who introduced new breathing techniques to me. Now I can play the harmonica for a whole day without feeling tired at all. This experience proved to me that even professional musicians should never cease to learn. There is no shortcut to absolutely mastering an instrument, and everyone needs a mentor to help them along their journey.

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You are hailed as a virtuoso of your generation. What is it like living up to that expectation?

Even today, I still believe fame and recognition is fleeting and your ability is never the only thing that determines success in this industry. Being hailed as a virtuoso can put pressure on myself at times, but I think it is a good thing to feel this pressure as it motivates me to improve and pushes me to become a finer and more thoughtful musician with better technique that serves the music and the instrument well.

Photo: Musica del Cuore

Why did you choose to participate in “Musica del Cuore” as its opening act with musical director Helen Cha?

Helen and I are great friends, and she invited me to open this concert series with her. “Musica del Cuore” has been running since 2015 and I am glad to know that such a good platform is available for young musicians to gain experience performing in different venues, grow from this experience, and acquire support for their career. As this is a public and free event, each performance in this concert series bring more awareness of classical music to the public and help musicians reach out to a wider audience. It’s a good cause to support.

Photo: Musica del Cuore

Recognition is important in your industry. How can musicians showcase their craft to those beyond the classical music circle?

Apart from classical music, I have also collaborated with local popular singers, such as Hins Cheung, Hacken Lee, and Eason Chan. Working with these artists was a dream come true for me as I listened to their songs growing up. I am grateful for these projects, as playing with big names in pop music offered a much higher level of exposure to my playing. Classical music will never have four million people in the audience, but when I was performing at these concerts, there were easily much more people watching the show.

Pop concerts are usually faster paced than classical concerts, which give you a longer period to practice and fine-tune your piece beforehand, whereas you need to be ready to play in about a week for pop concerts and you usually have to memorise the score and be prepared for dealing with sudden changes onstage. I still get requests for collaboration for pop concerts just one week before the performance date!

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Photo: Musica del Cuore

What are your thoughts on supporting aspiring musicians? 

I think it’s important for all musicians to have a mentor, which is why I have been running my own harmonica academy since 2015. I would like to think I am the “emissary” responsible for introducing this great little instrument to the wider public. My students are from all trades and all ages, but they have one thing in common: their passion for classical music. I was lucky to continue teaching the harmonica through online classes during the pandemic. As the nature of the instrument limits the player’s movement, it’s easy for me to check and correct the way they play on camera in a close-up.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.