From brawls to walkouts, players attuned to discord

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2002, 12:00am

From a punch-up over a pianist and a smashed cello, to a sacking 'massacre' and a revenge walk-out, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has a torrid past.

Newspaper clippings over recent years reveal reports on all of the above - as well as everything from the orchestra's racial mix to the budget balance.

Now one in 10 musicians are reportedly leaving in September - halfway through their two-year contracts - over dissatisfaction with musical director Samuel Wong. Sources say seven of the 89 members have already handed in their notices.

The most recent slew of headlines came last February, when then-recently appointed Mr Wong, a former eye surgeon who turned full-time conductor in 1990, sacked 12 musicians.

Orchestra members claimed the move was aimed at ousting locals and replacing them with foreigners who had 'Asian faces'. They criticised the way a test to weed out 'incompetent' players was handled, with only Mr Wong as judge.

In 1993, a rehearsal was interrupted by a fracas over a female pianist, during which concert master Michael Ma was punched and left with a fractured skull.

During another fight a few weeks earlier, a cello estimated to be worth $100,000 was smashed by two musicians allegedly brawling over a female musician.

In other sackings, former music director Tung Ling gave 16 musicians their marching orders in the 1970s. Then, in 1991, David Atherton fired 14 players in what became dubbed the 'St Valentine's Day Massacre'.

In 1993, Mr Atherton sacked veteran concert master Marcus Lehmann - after which 14 players refused to renew their contracts in what a member at the time called 'the St Valentine's Day Revenge'.

Mr Atherton remains with the orchestra as 'conductor laureate'.

Last year, Mr Wong claimed he had a high level of support from the musicians. But departing members tell a different story - and someone disliked him enough to start an e-mail smear campaign last June.

Management of the orchestra has long been contentious. Last year, musicians passed a vote of no confidence in management by 76 per cent. However, 22 per cent of members were absent.