Orchestra turmoil just growth pangs: conductor

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 12:00am

Controversial Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra music director Samuel Wong defended himself against his critics last night after sacking three more members, two of whom he hired only a year ago.

He described as 'growth pangs' the changes which have resulted in sackings or resignations equivalent to more than a third of the positions in the 89-member orchestra since he signed on less than two years ago.

The deadline for finalising the make-up of the orchestra for the coming season - factoring in resignations and dismissals - fell on Thursday. The three sacked ahead of that deadline include a principal player, hired by Mr Wong last year after a previous round of firings in which he gave 12 members their marching orders.

Ten musicians have also quit mid-contract this year. They include two section principals - viola and oboe - and two assistant principals.

Those sacked or resigning will play on until the end of the concert season in September.

Since Mr Wong joined the orchestra, 19 musicians have quit and 15 have been sacked.

Speaking anonymously because of a contract secrecy clause, musicians blamed the recent resignations on widespread dissatisfaction with orchestra management in general, and Mr Wong in particular.

However, in a statement to the South China Morning Post last night, Mr Wong defended his record, saying the turnover was not unusual for an Asian orchestra which depended partly on expatriate players.

It was normal to put new members on probation because sometimes their sound in an audition was different to their performance with an orchestra, he said.

'Managing this constant flux is part of our job, and this sometimes presents very exciting opportunities, as we capture the best young professionals who are sometimes destined for greatness,' he said.

The orchestra was being built rapidly so 'no doubt, there will be some growth pangs', he said.

'By every measure, the quality and reach of the [orchestra] has risen - critical review, audience attendance, radio and TV broadcasts, foreign press coverage . . . money raised privately, corporate sponsorship, government endorsement,' Mr Wong said.

'As for anonymous complaints, I have seen them in every orchestra in the world. Disgruntled players who are leaving tell another story, to be sure,' he said.

He said many of the recent resignations were driven by personal and family reasons.

But one of those who resigned said orchestra management was ignoring the real issues.

'They want to protect themselves with silence. Not once have they come to us and said, 'Why are you leaving?' . . . I'm leaving because I feel that the standard is not high enough for a professional orchestra,' the musician said.

Another departing musician said the 'No 1 reason' cited by those leaving was Mr Wong.

'Under him, beautiful music is being done very poorly,' he said, adding he did not believe taxpayers were getting value for the $60 million a year the orchestra receives in government subsidies.

Mr Wong - a former eye surgeon who turned full-time conductor in 1990 - has a contract which binds him to be in Hong Kong at least 14 weeks a year, when he lives at the Peninsula Hotel.

Last night, he said his salary was less than half the $4 million reported.

Mr Wong is also the music director of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, and is a former assistant director of the New York Philharmonic.

According to his publicity material, he is 'acclaimed for his clarity, confidence and passion'.